Who benefits from research in Flint?

by Kevin Boehnke

Ever since the Flint water crisis began, there’s been a growing feeling of unease, bottled up energy, and concern on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. While there are many good intentions at play, I keep having this feeling that the scholarly sharks (researchers who are itching to start working on this problem) are circling. Those who get in first will be more likely to get grant money, high profile talks at conferences, and build national reputations. This doesn’t mean that researchers are motivated by bad intentions, for the work that they want to do needs to be done. Understanding the true health and economic toll caused by the change in water supply is necessary for adequately punishing the responsible parties, figuring out how much aid to provide to the city to mitigate health consequences for those affected, and being able to apply the lessons learned from this disaster to other places in the country to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

The fallout from the Flint disaster means that there are vast numbers of health outcomes that must be studied. Lead has short and long-term effects on mental and physical development, affecting IQ, growth, risk of infectious and chronic disease, the immune system, and myriad other bodily systems. Long term human dosing experiments (especially in children) like this one would never be allowed by any kind of ethics board, so this is a unique opportunity to study how lead exposure affects health. Those who study and publish about this crisis will build reputations, fortunes, influence, and clout. Who will get to do it? Which scholars will be most qualified, vocal, persuasive, and willing to push aside their other work to be able to study this crisis?

Even pursuing this line of thinking makes me feel slimy. My aim is not to point fingers, nor to say that researchers are solely driven by selfish motivations. Many scholars are torn, unsure how much time to commit (if there’s one thing that is universally true about academics, it’s that they could always be doing more work), who to talk to, how best to engage, and unsure whether they can even have an impact. Many who do know how to get involved are acting on more altruistic motivations than the ones I listed above. They have existing relationships in the city and are trying to help, or are motivated to do good, or realize how important it is to make sure that the information they glean from their studies is as accurate as possible so that justice can be done.

But this reality of crises – they are visible, important, symbolic – means that all of these complicated emotional and ethical pieces are in play. There will be the good with the bad, and I fear that the people of Flint will continue to suffer (perhaps even more than they already have) if research in their community is not done with Flint residents as equal partners.

Partners who are directly affected by this contamination, and are thus well suited to help drive and develop research questions and allocation of public health resources. Partners who can have access to information gleaned from the studies, so they can act on it for medical, legal, or financial reasons. Partners who can help drive and develop research questions so they can participate with clear minds, safe in the knowledge that they are not being used. Partners who can develop outreach efforts, working in the communities that they know. Partners who are treated with respect.

The damage inflicted in this crisis will affect the residents of Flint for decades to come. The effects of the lead contamination will literally be passed along to the next generation of Flint’s children. Let that damage be mitigated, not worsened, by the actions of those trying to study and understand this crisis.