Citizen Science During the Flint, Michigan Federal Water Emergency: Ethical Dilemmas and Lessons Learned


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Ubiquity Press


A citizen science collaboration between Flint residents, the Virginia Tech “Flint Water Study” team, and others helped to uncover the Flint Lead-in-Drinking Water Crisis and a community-wide outbreak of Legionella. The resulting Federal Emergency declaration in January 2016 resulted in more than $600 million in relief funding, an acknowledged case of environmental injustice, and resignations/indictments of some public officials. But after responsible government entities apologized and attempted to make amends and help with the recovery, some “citizen scientists” began making public statements that were in direct conflict with public health messaging of scientific authorities. A general state of science anarchy resulted, which created further distrust and confusion. Some practices employed were consistent with a concept of “citizen engineering,” which aims to “undermine engineering [and science] expertise” in the name of “democratizing” science. “Citizen Engineers” view concepts of scientific rigor and objectivity as justification for abuse of power by authorities and scientists, and they embrace biases and conflicts of interest that scientists aspire to guard against. While there are ethical guidelines for professional scientists on research misconduct, no such framework exists for policing instances of unethical behavior by citizen scientists. Possible abuses of citizen science documented in Flint explored in this case study include: 1) collection of non-representative data that created unjustified fear among residents about the safety of water used for bathing and showering, 2) perceived financial conflicts of interest, and 3) falsification of data to obtain relief resources, support lawsuits, gain media attention, or support erroneous scientific conclusions. We also report the journey of an aspiring citizen scientist who openly acknowledged mistakes, made the “right” decision in relation to handling an ethical dilemma, and who was then publicly attacked for doing so. This experience highlights challenges to the practice of citizen science, especially during high profile emergency interventions and disasters involving environmental injustice.



Citizen Science Abuse, Citizen Engineering, Environmental Ethics, Expertise, Flint Water Crisis, Misconduct, Shigella