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Adam Kissel

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Scientist Who Challenged Environmental Regulation in California Sues UCLA

Posted: 06/14/2012 6:27 pm

If there is anywhere we need honest scientists who aren't on a mission to exclude whistleblowers, skeptics, and people with minority opinions, it is the American university. But that principle has failed at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). After 35 years at UCLA, Dr. James E. Enstrom has had to resort to suing UCLA in order to keep his job.

The case has broad resonance because Dr. Enstrom and his colleagues have strongly disagreed over research on a particular kind of air pollution and its implications for environmental regulations. Are huge numbers of people dying from air pollution in California, or not quite so many? This is a critical question, and smart regulation depends on good science. I have no expertise on what kind of regulations, if any, should be enacted. But if the science is incorrect, then policy will be steered wrongly, and California might be spending millions or billions of dollars -- and forcing private companies to spend millions or billions more -- that, all other things being equal, could used for more significant improvements to public health.

Dr. Enstrom is the kind of scientist who is willing to ask these hard questions. But UCLA finally had enough of him. The last straw appears to be his successful whistleblowing against a member of his own department (Environmental Health Sciences, or EHS). His efforts led to fellow EHS faculty member and activist John Froines being replaced on a panel for the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Several members of the panel, including Froines, had been serving beyond the three-year legal limit on their terms of office.

Enstrom also blew the whistle on a fake Ph.D. degree claimed by a CARB researcher. It's not hard to agree that when one of CARB's senior researchers makes up one of his own credentials, we should at least ask whether that person's scientific findings hold up.

All of this was too much for UCLA. First, the school depleted Enstrom's research funds without telling him, and then suddenly told him he was out of money and out of a job. He survived that attempt on his livelihood. Then, his department decided to review his work and decided that he no longer fit the "mission" of the department where he had been doing exactly what the department claims to be about: studying environmental health. No job for you! (Here's the documentation.)

Enstrom had strong arguments against every one of UCLA's claims. With the help of my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), since 2010, he worked within the system to keep his job, and we helped him hang onto his job for two more years. (FIRE also has no opinion on the underlying science or its implications for regulation.)

Meanwhile, Enstrom's situation has received national attention as well as statements of concern from state legislators. (You can even see me in a Reason.tv video about the case.) The American Institute for Law and Justice took up his cause and made great efforts to help Enstrom keep his job without resorting to litigation. Finally, with time running out, Enstrom has sued UCLA. We hope that justice will finally be served and that UCLA can restore its reputation as an honest broker of good science.

 

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