Sewer Study in Poor Black Neighborhoods – Good Science or Bad Policy?

Sewer Study in Poor Black Neighborhoods – Good Science or Bad Policy?

NPR News & Notes featured a piece about Scientists Under Fire for Sewage Sludge Study. Francis Holland ranted about it too on American Journal of Color Arousal.

I realize that the black community is still untrusting of scientists and science research. And this issue has several groups like the NAACP up in arms claiming Tuskegee type issues. What is the main problem? That the recent research was done in those neighborhoods or that the research was done and people were harmed? If people were harmed AND they were not fully alerted to the dangers (I doubt that) AND they were not treated AND the incident was swept under the rug, then there is a point and the anger is justified. But according to the press stories none of these scenarios seem to be the case.

It seems the matter of research can’t be addressed objectively among the Black community because of the sensitivity regarding the Tuskegee Experiment. The Tuskegee Experiment was a sad page in history, but let’s keep things in perspective. 1. Monitoring the unchecked effects of syphilis in blacks was a meaningful experiment – at that time. Back then, Syphilis was unchecked in everybody and because of racist beliefs, many people really believed that similar treatment in blacks as whites would have been a waste. As sad it is sounds, the doctors wanted to prove (not just provide anecdotal evidence) that Syphilis harms black people just as bad as Europeans. 2. What made the Tuskegee Experiment egregious was the fact that a cure had been found and they did NOT Inform the participants.

Since that case, the laws and ethics of clinical research have improved dramatically. Remember the finding that hormone therapy might be harmful to menopausal women? They pulled that treatment and halted that study. That’s how research works now. Also, Institutional Review Boards (IRB) are VERY stringent and serious about critiquing ALL research before ANY experiment is done. They make sure everything is proper and safe and legal. They follow strict federal and state and professional research organizations’ procedures and ethics guidelines when conducting ANY research with living subjects, especially human. They err on the side of safety and caution. These Boards are not comprised of a group of like mined scientists who co-sign each other’s research. These boards consists of scientists, a doctor or veterinarian, lay persons from the larger community (such as clergy or politicians or teachers or community activist). And you best be sure the university administrators have lawyers look over things for liability as well.This case is a perfect example of a sensationalized story that was presented to speak to people’s fears and ignorance about science or research processes. I understand the sensitivity we have that poor, marginalized people may be being taken advantaged of in research studies. But that fear and the campaign against research is harmful.

This is a matter alerts me of the crucial need to increase the public’s awareness of science and research. The need to increase scientific literacy among people is not just limited to the marginalized and under-educated, specifically black people. I keep discovering that even presumably well-educated black people are still prone to get keyed up emotionally and are largely ignorant about science and how it proceeds.

Which leads me to address one more issue – Government funded research does NOT mean government directed research. Scientists develop hypotheses from direct observations. Hypotheses aren’t handed down to scientists. This research was undertaken by a team of academic researchers. This was an idea that they developed, perhaps born of real-life issues they were encountering – lead poisoning of nearby residents (who happen to be poor and black). The researchers secured funding to undertake this research – they asked for the money

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