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The Flint Water Crisis Whistleblower Tells Us Why She's Marching in Washington

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha talks science, advocacy and co-chairing the March for Science this weekend.

by Grennan Milliken
Apr 19 2017, 5:03pm

The Trump administration's mistrust of science and medicine has put our health and environment on the line. But scientists and doctors are stepping out of their labs and into the streets to defend them. On April 22, Earth Day, thousands of science professionals will descend upon Washington, DC to participate in the March for Science. The march's organizers have run into several ideological issues in the planning phases, but this Saturday is still poised to be one of the biggest pro-science demonstrations of our time.

We spoke to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Flint, Michigan pediatrician and whistleblower, as well as honorary co-chair of the march, about why it's so important for scientists to speak out.

MOTHERBOARD: Some people think that scientists are going beyond their job description by speaking their mind. Why is it so critical that they speak out?

Dr. Hanna-Attisha: You know, especially for those of us that went into medicine, we went into this profession to help people. And in my profession of pediatrics, advocacy is very much a part of our job description. You must speak out for children because children cannot speak out, they cannot vote, they cannot say 'we need better immunizations, we need better policies on gun control.' It is part of our job to use our voice. Especially for populations that have gone largely voiceless.

What happens to society if the scientific community retreats into its shell?

Obviously as a society we lose the benefits of science, but we also lose the professional credibility of scientists and physicians. There becomes a perception that they are not to be believed on any issue that they speak up on. It's damaging in terms of the advancements that we may make, but it's also damaging to the advancements that we've already made.

I think vaccines are a great example. I think it's one of the biggest public health success stories of our civilization. But when that science is under attack, when that credibility is under attack, we risk the consequences. I've taken care of kids with pertussis, with whooping cough, because they weren't vaccinated.

When you alerted the State of Michigan that children in Flint were being poisoned by lead, the state immediately questioned your credibility and integrity. Other science professionals, like climate scientists, have faced this kind of public derision as well. What kind of an impact does this bullying have on science professionals trying to do their jobs?

When anybody is a victim of bullying—I take care of kids who are bullied—what happens is that they shutter and close down. And they're afraid to speak up. So I think the impact that this has on other scientists and physicians is that 'hey if you do this, we're going to shut you down too, so you might as well just keep quiet.' And that is the exact opposite of what we need right now. We need more doctors, and more scientists, and more folks who espouse medicine and science, to be speaking up.

Bullying scientists is not new, but it seems to have reached a fever pitch right now. How the heck did we get here?

I have no idea [laughs]. It's absolutely mind boggling. If you just look at environmental protection—who doesn't want to be able to sit down in their home and have a glass of clean water? In the 60s and before that when we didn't have EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and we didn't have regulations, rivers would catch on fire—do we really want to go back to those days?

Do you think that over time the scientific and medical community has gotten a little disconnected from the rest of society?

Absolutely. I think we've become hyper specialized in our work—you know, this researcher is working on this gene, for example. It's also difficult for scientists to get out of their lexicon and to translate what they're doing into lay language so that people appreciate the value of their work. But I think being able to participate in activities like [the march] really reinvigorates the full purpose of our profession and our commitment to service. I think there is a void, and I think that when academics and physicians get out into that space, it's filling the void. And I think communities are yearning for their voices.

You are a first generation Iraqi immigrant—one of the countries affected by Trump's original stalled travel ban. The science and medical community is highly interconnected and international. What do closed door policies like this do to our global scientific standing? To our public health?

Not only our standing in the scientific community, but also our reputation in the world at large. It's embarrassing, it's frightening. You know my real hat is I'm a residency director. So I train future pediatricians who are coming here to do their residency, and Flint is not a number one destination for people who are American medical students to come train. They go to New York or Chicago. So by and large the majority of my trainees are international medical grads who come from many of those banned countries, and it is those same folks who are treating rural America—Trump country. The backbone of our healthcare system are these immigrants. And that's not even including our scientists—six of our seven Nobel Prize winners this year were immigrants.

Having policy that limits and scares immigrants from coming is only going to hurt us. It is going to hurt the very vulnerable populations that we serve and I can see that first hand. Even if it's not implemented. Just the fact that it's talked about. We're blunting the potential of so many budding scientists who may want to go into these professions and who may want to immigrate here and do great work.

What do you hope comes out of the march on Saturday?

I hope it's just the beginning. I hope it begins to spark advocacy in those that participate. It can't be 'I'm going to come out of my lab, and I'm going to march today, and then I'm going to go back into my lab,' no. It's a pathway for scientists to get into advocacy. It will hopefully give them a flavor of what's important, and why it's important. To create a movement.

Motherboard will be at the March for Science this weekend. Be sure to follow along for live interviews and dispatches.