The Smog of Reprisal

Peter Wood

James Enstrom, a UCLA epidemiologist, was denied reappointment last year to his position as a research professor in the School of Public Health. Dr. Enstrom, who had worked at the university for 34 years, got into trouble, according to the campus newspaper’s report in August, because his research findings on “fine particulate pollution” ran against conventional wisdom and “stirred up far more attention than scientific research usually receives.”

Part of what Enstrom stirred up was the revelation that the lead author of a key scientific paper used by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to justify new regulations had faked his doctoral degree. Enstrom blew the whistle on Hien Tran, who claimed to have a Ph.D. from UC Davis but in fact had a mail-order doctoral degree for which he paid $1,000. As that story unraveled, Enstrom urged CARB to reconsider its position to take account of better-grounded scientific findings. This put Enstrom at odds with two other CARB commissioners serving on its Scientific Review Panel who were also his UCLA colleagues, Mary Nichols and John Froines. Panel members are limited to serving three years, but Froines had served for 26 years, and Enstrom initiated a complaint that forced him to step down.

Froines is reported by Reason TV to have subsequently voted in his UCLA department to deny Enstrom reappointment to his position. We don’t have confirmation of this. UCLA is declining to comment, and the official grounds for Enstrom’s removal, as reported by the Daily Bruin were that:

his research on air pollution did not align with the department mission and failed to reach funding requirements, according to a June 9 layoff notice from Richard Jackson, environmental health sciences department chair.

Not everyone is buying the official story. Reason TV strongly suggests that Enstrom was fired in retaliation for his role as a whistleblower. Its nine-minute video treats the CARB regulations on fine particulate pollution as a rush to judgment by a body that benefits when it keeps the public alarmed. Hien Tran’s paper asserted that fine particulate pollution, of the sort produced by diesel trucks, causes 2,000 premature deaths among Californians each year. Enstrom says his research show that the actual number of close to zero.

Enstrom is appealing his dismissal and has found a powerful ally in The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which sees the case as one of academic freedom.

Enstrom is clearly an iconoclast. He appears in a 2004 Chronicle article defending researchers who received money from tobacco companies for their research, and he was at the time a skeptic on the health dangers of second-hand smoke. In connection with his links to the tobacco industry, Engstrom has also been targeted by the left-wing advocacy group Source Watch, which devotes a page to him. He may be right or wrong about the dangers to Californians posed by diesel truck exhaust, but he is clearly a serious and competent scientist. And he very much looks like the victim of a dismissal aimed at getting rid of a colleague who was saying inconvenient things.

The doctrine of academic freedom is much abused these days. Some faculty members who engage in political activism outside their areas of scholarly research and teaching wave the academic-freedom flag the moment someone merely criticizes their views. All too often “academic freedom” is cited as justification for behaving in ways meant to outrage, as though offensiveness all by itself is a legitimate educational tool.

The Enstrom case is a good example of why we shouldn’t devalue the moral currency of academic freedom by allowing these loose (and false) extensions. Here is an instance of a dedicated researcher whose doubts about the scientific merits of supposedly scientific claims that contradicted his own findings led to a series of embarrassing discoveries about a state agency. Rather than correct the underlying problem, the state agency plowed ahead with a policy based on spurious research—and the whistleblower got fired. This is exactly the time that we need a strong doctrine of academic freedom.

The academy, however, has been pretty quiet about the matter. The San Diego Union Tribune editorialized on “So Much for Academic Freedom at UCLA.” The blog Hot Air headlined the story, “Green regulation in CA: Academic fraud, retaliation, and science denial.” Thus the non-academic news media have picked this story up, as have several bloggers, but so far as I can tell, neither the Chronicle nor Inside Higher Ed have mentioned it, and the AAUP has been silent.

This article was originally published on April 1, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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