Reflections on “Crossing the Imaginary Line”

Early September, Environmental Science & Technology, a prestigious journal of the environmental engineering field, published an editorial titled “Crossing the Imaginary Line.” The editorial, written by Editor-in-Chief, Prof. David Sedlak, argues that environmental engineering academics should not cross the “imaginary line” that separates the “dispassionate researcher from the environmental activist” as it threatens the objectivity of research and discourages funding for basic research. Or in other words, by advocating for a certain environmental position, the researcher risks academic integrity, and retaliation from funding sources and political entities. The question of not only the researcher’s, but the engineering practitioner’s ethical responsibility to the public has long been debated within the engineering community. The appearance of this editorial in such a major publication has sparked much debate between environmental engineering researchers across the country.


Despite my lack of experience and not being a researcher, I wish to express my thoughts regarding this topic from the perspective of a student still very much in the nascent stages of his career as a practicing engineer, as the ethical responsibility of engineering is often skimmed over in engineering coursework, and always deserves more attention. In addition to my own thoughts, I will include in my discussion the written responses from Prof. Marc Edwards and the Flint Water Study, Prof. Charles Haas, and Ph.D. student Maya Carrasquillo. These responses, along with the original editorial, offer an array of perspectives and help inform my own as I attempt to shape an opinion.

The “imaginary line” between researcher and activist immediately blurs when one considers the ethical responsibility of the engineer. The First Canon of Civil Engineering states that “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public…Under this canon an engineer is expected not only to protect the public in his or her own work, but also to take action if he or she has knowledge that any other person’s actions may undermine the public welfare, a requirement that may include reporting such actions to a government authority with the power to act on behalf of the public.” While there are indeed differences in services between the practicing engineer and the researcher in an academic setting, this ethical responsibility is assumed when one conducts any work within the field of engineering. The engineer’s first responsibility is to the public – not the company, not the institution. For researchers in academia, this responsibility manifests itself in community outreach requirements for faculty – whether it be serving on a governmental panel or local water board, or advising local chapters of Engineering Without Borders or a professional organization. Some institutions hold this community outreach requirement more seriously than others, and indeed, I would expect faculty to have mixed feelings regarding the existence of such a requirement. Prof. Sedlak covers the typical responsibility of a researcher near the beginning of his editorial, “the combination of meaningful research, mentorship and a few hours per week of outreach fulfills the need of the researcher to improve the planet. But encouraging forays into the real world comes with unintended consequences as researchers are exposed to situations where the system designed to protect public health and the environment has failed.”

Though engineers have a primary obligation to the public, I still believe that there is a point where a researcher can cross “the imaginary line.” My preliminary interpretation of the editorial was that Prof. Sedlak was not outright banning the researcher from environmental advocacy, but that he was cautioning the researcher of potential consequences of advocacy. The editorial wishes to highlight the “unintended consequences” when the researcher chooses to devote more and more time to environmental advocacy.

While the researcher’s primary obligation is to the public, the researcher’s main task is to research, not advocate. Yes, there almost always will be a component of advocacy in any research, especially engineering research, where much of the research has direct application in mind. But I believe there is definitely a danger when a researcher commits fully to environmental advocacy. In the public eyes, and even to a degree in the academic view, the researcher will forever more be associated with that particular environmental position. I am of the opinion that researchers are best suited to advocate for a position based on solid understanding of science, and would be prepared to change their opinion when new evidence comes (indeed, this is the very essence of the scientific method). But whether or not this position influences the researcher to produce biased results is irrelevant, as the perception that such a bias may exist persists. In a sense, a complete devotion to an environmental position results in the researcher becoming pigeon-holed and ostracized, both academically and socially, greatly limiting any further meaningful research from being produced. Prof Sedlak discusses this, warning that crossing the line “is often a lonely road that one follows at both personal and professional cost.”

In order for a researcher to conduct studies, their work needs to be funded. Prof. Sedlak points out that a tarnished reputation not only hurts the field of research as a whole, but the personal funding opportunities of the researcher. As stated in the editorial, “if we move from being educators and researchers to allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research.” While it is very possible that politicians will be more likely to block public funding to researchers with differing agendas, that is by no means a legitimate reason for one to not make an issue known if all other methods have been exhausted. This is an example of a system that does not work as intended. As Maya Carrasquillo points out, if research funding is the main motivator for research results and actions taken, rather than the welfare of the public, then the concept of an impartial researcher is already jeopardized. The Flint Water Study notes that the rational for having academic tenure is to avoid academics having such misplaced priorities. Prof. Sedlak comments that environmental research often concludes with recommending “costly or unpopular” policies, but fear of lack of funding should not be used as an excuse for ignoring public welfare.

Just because crossing such a line comes with many personal consequences, that does not mean that the line should never be crossed, just that it should be crossed rarely. When an academic decides to enter into the realm of environmental advocacy, there is a great weight carried with such an action, as this is a rare occurrence, a “final alternative that is only exercised when all else fails.” When it does happen, it signifies a failure of the current system to implement change, and can act as a catalyst to engage the public, media and relevant parties to action. The researcher carries great weight in the general public, and that weight should not be thrown around carelessly. For better or for worse, having someone with Ph.D. after their name supporting any position gives more credence. The researcher knows this, the public knows this, the media knows this. There is power in this position, and it should not be used lightly, but it should be used. Maya Carrasquillo believes that researchers have a responsibility to have “a voice, one that is held with much credibility because of the letters that come after the name.” There is an amount of sacrifice required on behalf of the researcher, but ultimately, their responsibility to society outweighed their desire to keep their academic career unblemished from controversy. Prof. Haas suggests that crossing the line belongs to the tenured and experienced researchers to lessen harm to career. That once reputation and scholarship is established, “going to the media is not beyond an imaginary line.”

When used correctly, environmental activism by a researcher does not hurt academia, it enhances it. Particularly in the field of environmental engineering, when so much of the research is tied to crucial systems hidden from the public eye, having a public academic voice puts the field in the spotlight. As Maya Carasquillo points out, many issues that environmental engineers are tasked to solve are “at the effect level, rather than the causation because they are not being addressed at higher levels necessary before they even reach the bottom line.” While communicating environmental issues should first and foremost be conducted by environmental advocacy groups, when the issue is pressing enough, an academic voice is looked upon favorably. The researcher is advocating on behalf of the public, which is surely to increase the field’s pubic standing. I may be alone in this opinion, but I believe the public would rather have the researcher advocating for action based on solid scientific results rather than have the researcher remain silent and maintain the appearance of objectiveness when public welfare is on the line. When all other methods have failed and crossing the line is the last resort, remaining silent is equivalent to complicity. What is the cost of not doing anything? Again, the researcher’s role is somewhat underestimated in the editorial, as having a researcher explain the relevance of their research to the public can be a powerful motivator for public support of the field, if not for funding

Prof. Sedlak is no stranger to being the spotlight – as a well-regarded and recognized environmental engineer, Prof. Sedlak has appeared in many interviews and delivered many talks regarding the state of the country’s infrastructure, and a need for a new water infrastructure system. His own experience may have informed his writing, and should not be taken lightly. His forays into the public have been encouraging to fellow engineering students and me as we begin our careers, and demonstrate the positive impact that can occur when a researcher of high academic standing becomes an advocate.

To summarize my opinions so far, I agree with Prof. Sedlak that Crossing the Imaginary Line should be an absolute last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted to preserve academic integrity. The act of crossing the line is a major step, and symbolizes a failure in the current system. While many of the consequences of crossing the line are legitimate concerns and should serve as a warning to researchers, I do not believe that these consequences should be used as reasons for not crossing the line, as public welfare must hold paramount in all actions of an engineer. I also do not believe that crossing the line harms the social contract between researchers and the public, but instead enhances it through an example of dedication to the public. So while I read the editorial as a cautionary tale, I believe that researchers can, and should, cross the line only as a last resort. Of course, “last resort” can have many interpretations, and will undoubtedly vary per individual. However, there are certainly steps that can be taken to ensure that researchers have a solid ground to stand on when questioned for their decision to cross the line.

The editorial proposes some solutions to avoid having researchers cross the line in the first place, some more useful than others. Prof. Sedlak proposes that “we must increase our active support of efforts to rebuild State and Federal agencies that have been diminished by budget cuts and political meddling.” This action underscores that our current system is not adequately serving its purpose, and must be modified. But Prof. Sedlak does not give much detail on how one can implement this solution, and “active support” sounds dangerously close to advocacy, something that he aims to prevent in the first place. Again, the second solution is vague at best: “do a better job teacher our students…about their professional responsibilities, emphasizing their obligation to push back when faced with injustice.” I fully support increased engineering ethics education in the undergraduate curriculum, but what does pushing back when faced with injustice look like? And how does it differ from environmental advocacy? Both these solutions seem to support some sort of action to be taken when faced with injustice, but what does this action look like short of crossing the line? Detailing these steps would be helpful in understanding the spectrum of dispassionate researcher to environmental advocate.

The third solution offers more substance. “We should protect ourselves and our institutions by seeking out non-governmental organizations that employ full-time activists to translate research findings into action.” Prof. Haas agrees with this sentiment that researchers should “first seek to involve competent authorities or advocacy organizations. I agree whole-heartedly, and indeed, I believe this should be the default approach to all research results. In an ideal world, it is the researcher’s responsibility to conduct sound, objective research. Once complete, it is the researcher’s responsibility to submit the results of this research for review by all interested and relevant parties. It is then the responsibility of the relevant parties, such as the governing bodies and non-profit oversight organizations to translate the research into actionable policies and advocate for the policies. But we live far from an ideal world, and in this world the position of an influencer has more responsibility than originally intended. Additionally, advocacy via large organizations does not by any means guarantee results. As noted by the Flint Water Study, for years the ASCE has made known the poor state of infrastructure in the United States, and yet it was only after the publicity of the flint water crisis did investment begin to pour in.

But even Prof. Sedlak admits that there still may be times when this does not work, or if I may rephrase, there WILL be times when this does not work. But even in these situations, the “community member will be more powerful if their peers assist them…he or she will cross the imaginary line with the full support of the community.” Here, Prof. Sedlak argues that the voice of many peers is preferable to the voice of one lonely researcher, which certainly makes sense. I may be in the wrong, but I am of the opinion that many researchers that the media has uplifted due to “Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities…to create a narrative about the noble individual fighting injustice,” have the support of many peers, and certainly of the public of which they are defending. It is thanks to the media narrative that we believe that these researchers acted on their own. Contrary to what school teaches kids about history, great events are rarely ever the result of a single person. It takes numerous people, both in the public and the background, to get a movement to work. So I agree that when a researcher crosses the line, it is best to do so with the support of peers. But it is important to realize that this may already be the case, and the media just portrays the story differently.

However, as Prof. Edwards and the Flint Water Study point out, that one may never receive the approval of the community. Whether due to bureaucracy or “conformists who hold positions of greatest academic power,” support may not come immediately. Academic consensus is a slow movement, and one should “never wait for, or expect, the approval of your community.” When the researcher fully accepts the potential consequences of crossing the line, understanding that public welfare is more important, a reaction takes place. Changing a broken system is extremely difficult, but one should never underestimate the power and influence of an academic in the public eye.

Perhaps what would be more encouraging for critics of the editorial is if Prof. Sedlak pointed out a situation where he believed that crossing the line was justified. When asked by the Flint Water Study whether or not the Flint Water Crisis qualified as a last resort, Dr. Sedlak replied, “From everything I have been able to learn it does indeed look like a criminal activity and, as a citizen, I’m glad that someone stepped in to help. I am just not convinced that it has to be an academic. In fact, for the reasons related to incentives and other expectations from the people who pay our salaries that you have pointed out previously, we seem like a poor choice as watchdogs for the oppressed. If it is mainly a question of being able to speak truth to power, Erin Brockovitch and others who do this full time seem like they would be better watchdogs.” As pointed out by the Flint Water Study, Erin Brockovitch did reach out to no avail. So seemingly by every metric Prof. Sedlak sets out in his editorial, the Flint Water Crisis warranted a crossing of the line, and yet he seems adamant that an academic voice was not necessary. His belief that academics are a “poor choice as watchdogs for the oppressed” seems to underestimate the social influence that academics hold. I don’t believe that academics should be so-called “watchdogs,” whose role is to constantly monitor the state of things, but they can certainly serve as advocates when no one is listening.

The need for both environmental engineers and researchers to focus on both fundamental issues and improve the environment and public welfare is great. While I agree with the caution that Prof. Sedlak places on crossing the line, I believe that the line should, and must be crossed in certain occasions. To Prof. Haas, making findings publicly known should not “be regarded as crossing an imaginary line,” and I would argue that as long as the researcher’s actions are grounded in solid science and the continued pursuit of such research, the researcher is not crossing the line, as they continue to be researcher first, advocate second. These consequences should not dictate our actions and excuse us from our public responsibilities. Environmental Engineering research should not be solely motivated by personal gain or fear of retribution, but public welfare. The best case is for a researcher to have the backing of at least a few peers before going to the public. Regardless, the social contract is not jeopardized by crossing the line, indeed it is enhanced.

People pursue environmental engineering for a variety of reasons, but one that many hold common is the desire to “make the world a better place.” Prof. Sedlak’s article acknowledges this, but almost in a dismissive tone, attributing such desires of “idealism and personal responsibility” to naiveté that will almost certainly turn into begrudging responsibilities with experience. But for many researchers, as evidenced by the debate generated by the editorial, making the world a better place is still very much a desire, not just a responsibility. Still, it is important to point out, as Prof. Sedlak does, “for others, the desire to protect human health and the environment became the touchstone guiding decisions about research and career development.” The presence of an article, while prompting critical debate, also has the undesired effect of discouraging the next generation of environmental engineers, who see the editorial as a survey of the depressing state of academia without social investment. But the editorial does present some solutions that, with collaboration and consensus among the field, can develop into actions to fix the current system and support crossing the line when the time arrives. As environmental engineers and researchers we are in a unique position, socially and academically, to provide actionable, practical solutions to some pressing issues, even if just for the smallest of stakeholders.

EDIT: Prof. Sedlak has posted a clarifying piece regarding his editorial.


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