More Support for Whistleblowing UCLA Professor; Enstrom Case Becomes Class Assignment

By on August 16, 2011

I have been impressed by the amount of concern and support expressed in the case of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professor James Enstrom, who has been fighting for his job (with FIRE’s help) for more than a year. Dr. Enstrom, an environmental health sciences professor who has been at UCLA for 35 years, has been facing retaliation after publishing politically inconvenient research about air pollution and leading a successful whistleblowing campaign against the California Air Resources Board. UCLA told Enstrom that his controversial research failed to accord with the environmental health sciences department’s "mission," threatening academic freedom for any professor who engages in politically charged research.

FIRE supporters have expressed their outrage publicly and privately and have offered many resources to help Enstrom in his fight for justice. produced an excellent video about the case, and Enstrom is now being legally represented by former FIRE president David French and the American Center for Law & Justice. National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood has been addressing Enstrom’s story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Today I want to draw attention to an email sent to Environmental Health Sciences Chair Richard Jackson, perhaps the central villain of the case, by Edward Calabrese, Professor of Toxicology in the Department of Public Health (School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPH)) at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Calabrese writes:

[Enstrom's] research challenges the status quo. This can get people upset when they are more interested in an outcome than a process of discovery. None of us knows the truth about anything. We are all searchers in a process we call science … When people disagree, give them the chance to prove each other wrong via testing not by firing one of them! … The firing of someone over scientific differences sets such a bad example to students and faculty. … It is also a way to ensure that people will only develop hypotheses that the people in power want. Again, this is not what a University is about. If this is what UCLA is becoming then this is indeed a very major downturn.

Calabrese even made Enstrom’s case into a class assignment:

Last year I had my Intro to Environmental Health Sciences class (all new MS students in our SPH) explore the Enstrom controversy, with one group representing the Enstrom perspective and a second group representing the UCLA perspective. They had six weeks to study the papers and issues and then they developed and presented their cases. I can tell you that the students defending the UCLA perspective were shocked with how your University has treated Enstrom. The class will once again take up the Enstrom issue this fall.

Calabrese adds that he has been "no stranger to controversy" of a similar kind on his own campus at UMass Amherst:

I have been interested in studying the concept of hormesis [that there can be beneficial effects of low doses of things that, at high levels, are toxic] for many years. This has resulted in me becoming involved with issues almost as tempestuous as Enstrom has had to go through. The big differences are that I am tenured and that my department chairs and deans have always been fully supportive. … This is in such contrast to how your institution has responded.

Despite my praising of UMass there are still problems even here. For example, a few years ago one of the statisticians on the hormesis team (from the Math/Stat Department) said publicly to our entire group that he had to quit our research group because he was told it might affect his tenure decision. He said that there was an ideological group that indicated that they were opposed to my research as they believed it might result in the weakening of some health standards. He did quit the team; he did get tenure. Thus, UMass can be just as intolerant of people who think differently as is occurring at UCLA. These are very ugly situations … [Link and paragraph break added.]

It perhaps should be no surprise that in some places, as Calabrese suggests, good science and good schools are "degraded by money, politics and ideology." Let’s hope that UCLA ultimately makes the decision not to be one of them.

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles Cases: University of California at Los Angeles: Non-Reappointment of Controversial Professor