/ When Technical Experts Set Out to "Do Good": Deficit-Based Constructions of "the Public" and the Moral Imperative for New Visions of Engagement
the same people who claim to be
making you visible are the ones inflicting
the erasure.
sometimes "speaking on behalf of" is a
form of silencing, too.
Tweet by South African poet Koleka Putuma, 12.29.17[1]

It is an honor to be invited to write the editorial for this special issue of the Michigan Journal of Sustainability. I am a mother and an ethnographer who has worked extensively on the problem of lead in American drinking water. I entered the scene back in January 2004 when I, along with many other residents of Washington, D.C., learned that since 2001 our city’s taps had been dispensing excessive levels of lead, and that scientists, engineers, and health professionals in three government agencies responsible for protecting us had kept the news largely to themselves.[2] The undisclosed contamination lasted roughly twice as long as that in Flint, Michigan. Lead-in-water levels were at least as high, if not far higher. Years later, scientific research confirmed what many individual families had discovered independently early on in the crisis: that, contrary to official assurances, our water had caused serious harm to young children.[3],[4] We now know that, as a result of DC’s contamination, over 800—and possibly up to 42,000—toddlers in the nation’s capital experienced elevated blood lead levels, and that the city’s fetal death rate rose by 37 percent.[5],[6] To my knowledge, no studies have examined the contamination’s effects on other age groups.

My work on lead in drinking water woke me to three fundamental realizations that apply to many environmental injustices of our time. First, that our nation’s approach to this problem normalizes health harm.[7] Second, that this normalization is made possible by a structurally manufactured ignorance, which robs communities of basic information they would need to protect themselves, participate in technical discussions, advocate for effective solutions, and hold accountable wrongdoers and harm doers.[8] And third, that interventions privileging expert-led technical fixes over community-led technical and structural fixes often reduce complex societal problems into narrow technological ones and result in suboptimal public health protection and limited, if any, social change. Worse, they represent a form of social domination that: a) erases and appropriates community research, discoveries, and innovations; b) masks, and sometimes even disrupts, the local knowledges, networks of relationships, and resources necessary for the development of solutions that communities themselves recognize as solutions; and c) obscures ideologies that perpetuate and even rationalize the very asymmetries in power, access, and rights that allow for the problem to arise in the first place.

It thus becomes obvious that, contrary to how they are often imagined, technical interventions to “do good” do not and cannot possibly entail a simple transfer of “objective” scientific knowledge from “the lab” into contested spaces of environmental contamination.[9],[10] First, environmental contamination is rarely simply a technical problem. It is well documented that social marginalization and exclusionary regulations, processes, and institutions are directly associated with toxic exposures and health harm.[11],[12] Second, environmental contamination is rarely addressed simply through technical solutions. Rooted in structural inequities, such contamination is often coupled with affected communities’ demand that their needs, experiences, and knowledges be counted, that they have a seat at the table where decisions are made, and that their right to speak for themselves is respected.[13],[14] Third, technical solutions are never simply technical. Experts’ very decision to “do good,” their vision about what this “good” ought to be, and their selection of the “good’s” beneficiaries are laden with personal, professional, and institutional worldviews, interests, and assumptions. Finally, science itself—how it is produced, what and whose questions it answers, how it is interpreted, with whom it is shared and to what degree of detail, and in what direction it steers the conceptualization and implementation of appropriate solutions—is also shaped by non-technical judgments, preferences, and priorities.

Consequently, technical interventions to “do good” by definition embed social values that may align or misalign with the values of the communities they are designed to help. Depending on how they are carried out, such interventions can diminish or exacerbate a community’s social marginalization, validate or discount its agency and knowledge, and enhance or further undermine its access to and influence on expert research, resources, decisions, and solutions. In the end, technical interventions to “do good” can reinforce or disrupt the hegemony of the dominant social order—an order that privileges technical experts by granting them the right, authority, and even obligation to speak on behalf of affected communities about what these communities need and whether what they get is appropriate, sufficient, and effective.

I submit that for technical interventions to facilitate effective, just, and sustainable solutions, they must enable social transformation through a correction of the very ideologies behind the structural inequities that underlie environmental contamination.[15] In other words, they must be conceptualized in “explicitly political terms”[16] by placing questions of equity and power at the center—a process that must be led by community members who reflect the community’s diversity. Once launched, they must: function as mechanisms that communities can use to acquire any specialized tools they need; draw from infrastructures of funding, networks, and support that are usually available only to technical experts; establish their credibility; enter decision-making spaces usually reserved for experts; and challenge—as well as continuously re-challenge—the boundaries that marginalize and exclude them.

Practically speaking, transformative engagement asks of technical experts to change how they perceive, relate to, and apply their expertise. It necessitates that they:

  • Listen in a way that acknowledges the technical and moral value of community perspectives, leaving room for the possibility that these perspectives may expand or even correct their own understandings of the problem at hand;[17]
  • Share specialized knowledge and terminology in a way that empowers communities to assess, inform, expand, and challenge officially sanctioned positions while claiming technical and moral authority in their own right; and
  • Accompany communities through their struggle for repair until such repair is deemed complete by the communities themselves.[18]

Foundational to transformative engagement is a conceptualization of “the public” as individuals seeking power, access, and rights in order to redress the harm inflicted on them, however narrowly or broadly they define this harm. Lack of power, access, and rights ought not be conflated, however, with lack of intellectual, material, and social resources or the capacity to master and contribute to technical knowledge and technically sound solutions.

But how common is such a conceptualization of “the public”? In 2016, the prestigious journal Environmental Science & Technology published seven letters by environmental scientists and engineers discussing whether there exists an “imaginary line” between environmental science research and activism that ought not be crossed.[19],[20],[21],[22],[23],[24] This timely debate was sparked by an editorial, which proposed that such a line not only exists, but that crossing it catapults technical experts from dispassion to advocacy and risks undermining “the standing of academics as objective seekers of truth.”[25],[26] The seven authors took diverse positions on the issue, but their comments contained noteworthy commonalities. Specifically, they all asserted that environmental scientists and engineers have a commitment—if not an obligation—to protect the public’s health and welfare. They all described the manifestation of this commitment as a unidirectional delivery of scientific knowledge from technical experts (who have it) to the public (who lacks it).

Only one letter placed environmental contamination in the context of larger structural inequities, by linking technical expertise to power, gender, race, and class.[23] Its assertion that limited access to science brings disempowerment and a compromised ability to fight injustice is trenchant. Despite its crucially insightful stance, however, this letter too seemed to limit its scope to disenfranchised communities’ lack of scientific information. Although it is true that disenfranchised communities often do lack scientific information, this depiction can go further to acknowledge a more complex reality. Namely, that affected publics have been discovering their own exposures to environmental hazards since the onset of industrialization, generating scientific hypotheses about probable sources of contamination, conceptualizing and carrying out scientific studies to answer their own questions, contributing to scientific discovery, challenging or rejecting technological innovations and interventions, uncovering government and industry wrongdoing, holding those responsible accountable, driving legal and regulatory solutions, and playing a leading role in the birth and evolution of the nation’s environmental and environmental justice movements.[14],[27],[28],[29],[30],[31],[32],[33],[34],[35],[36]

Perhaps the most striking omission from the Environmental Science & Technology debate was that it was devoid of letters from members of frontline communities. Just as the Flint water crisis and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversies were drawing national and international attention, one of the world’s premier environmental science journals normalized a discourse about the proper relationship between scientists and “the public” that muted voices from the very people environmental scientists and engineers are dedicated to protecting. And it deprived journal readers of the opportunity to hear from individuals confronting environmental contamination how they think about the “imaginary line” and under what circumstances they see such a line supporting or impeding their efforts to redress injustice.

Non-experts as “deficient” is a dominant theme in the engineering profession’s imaginaries of “the public.”[9],[10] “Doing good” as supplying technical expertise to those presumed to have none is a core tenet of the now discredited “deficit model” of public understanding of science.[37] As well-meaning as these conceptualizations may be, they feed visions of engagement that grant technical experts a) the paternalistic role of guardian of “the public good,” b) near-exclusive authority to define what this “good” is, how it ought to be pursued, and if it has been realized, and c) the right to speak on behalf of disenfranchised communities and even write the histories of these communities for them. By extension, these conceptualizations perpetuate the systematic erasure of community voices, transgressing a foundational principle of the environmental justice movement: “we speak for ourselves.”14

Washington, D.C.’s lead-in-water contamination and the health harm it wreaked were discovered by distraught, unnamed, and unrecognized residents over two years before any technical interventions were launched.[3],[38] Independently, residents also discovered technical aspects of the contamination—like the fact that lead-in-water levels often rose while taps were running—which contradicted the prevailing scientific understanding of the time and turned out to have significant implications for public health.[39],[40] These residents’ pleas for help were ignored, their technical discoveries have still not been acknowledged, and their initiative to tip off The Washington Post, which made possible the paper’s historic exposé,[2] has been erased from dominant narratives about the case.

Flint’s water crisis was also first discovered by residents—many of whom were experiencing mysterious and agonizing ailments—soon after it began and long before the interventions that put technical experts front and center in the city’s story.[41] In Flint, residents organized bottled water distribution services early on and requested urgent attention to the lead contamination that they, themselves, identified in spite of government engineers’ assurances that the water flowing out of their taps was safe.[42],[43] Yet the university engineer who eventually helped confirm the community’s findings through resident-led large-scale testing that is neither accessible nor affordable to non-scientists, assumed primary authority over technical and non-technical judgments concerning Flint’s water, effectively left out the community from his investigation into government wrongdoing, and proceeded to declare that technical experts “are the eyes and ears of the public.”[44] In turn, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) called him the “leader” of Flint’s fight, and his alma mater claimed him as its “hero” in Flint.[44],[45]

An exercise in power, Flint’s mythic hero narrative, although perhaps appealing to our collective imagination, stretches facts while reducing a complex and multidimensional structural problem into a narrow lead-in-water problem. Further, it obscures residents’ agency, pivotal research, technical proficiency, intellectual wherewithal to stand up to experts who fail to address their needs, and determination to find new experts until they obtain answers to their questions and achieve satisfactory solutions. Finally, it confuses experts’ ability to “do good” with their ability to take control and assume ownership. This reinforces asymmetries in power, access, and rights by sanctioning expert activism over local activism, even when the former feeds on the latter and—worse—even when the former erases, appropriates, or impedes the latter.[46],[47]

Four years after the onset of the Flint water crisis, the scientific community’s dominant narrative is that the city’s water quality has been restored and the crisis is over. At the same time, scientific uncertainties and unknowns are downplayed or not formally acknowledged (e.g., concerning discolored tap water and significant lead-in-water contamination in homes considered low-risk); ongoing health problems remain unaddressed (e.g., concerning persistent skin rashes); key resident questions have been left unanswered (e.g., concerning non-lead contaminants in the water that the community might have been, or continue to be, exposed to); and residents themselves have been largely excluded from government forums where long-term solutions are being formed.[48],[49],[50] Notably, fundamental gaps between officially sanctioned expert narratives and prevalent community narratives about matters as basic as when the crisis started, what it consisted of, if it is truly resolved, and whether the solutions in place are adequate, just, or effective have not been bridged. And, coming full circle, the voices, knowledges, and grievances of residents are once again given cursory attention and dismissed.

Responses to environmental crises that privilege expert-led technical fixes over community-led technical and structural fixes are not limited to the problem of lead in drinking water. The recent re-loss of electrical power in Puerto Rico and residents’ “just recovery” movement following hurricanes Irma and Maria;[51],[52] Duke Energy’s mandated storage of 130 million tons of coal ash, following the company’s 2014 spill in North Carolina, that may disproportionately impact low-income rural communities;[53],[54] the physical restoration of New Orleans’ Holy Cross neighborhood, following hurricane Katrina, that has been deemed haphazard and suboptimal;[55] and the installation of technologies to push back sea level rise floodwaters in Fort Lauderdale that favor affluent neighborhoods while leaving low-income communities vulnerable to harm[56],[57] are all connected to technical solutions that marginalize, and might cause additional harm to, communities that are already marginalized and harmed.

Technical experts are in a unique position to help communities in crisis—but with new methods of engagement, collaboration, and accompaniment. And their work ought to be evaluated less on the basis of whether or not it crossed an “imaginary line” between research and activism, and more on the basis of what the community it aimed to serve says about its impact. Did it align with the community’s core values? Did its outcomes support the community’s core goals? Only after extensive exploration of these questions through diverse resident voices can technical experts have a moral foundation on which to judge the success of their engagement. In the absence of such confirmation, celebrations of technical interventions as expressions of “the good” risk inflicting further erasure and becoming—in the words of Koleka Putuma—“a form of silencing, too.”


I would like to thank Nancy Love, Ben Pauli, Paul Schwartz, and Tom Walker for their extremely valuable comments. I also gratefully acknowledge the National Science Foundation (NSF) for grant EEC 1551152 (Early-Concept Exploratory Research on the Professional Formation of Engineers’ Conceptions of “the Public”). My greatest appreciation goes to the Ph.D. students at the helm of the Michigan Journal of Sustainability for offering me the space, inspiration, and support to write this piece. I dedicate it to them and all agents of change in the next generation of technical experts. All opinions and any errors are my own.

Author Biography

Yanna Lambrinidou, PhD, is a lead-in-water activist and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech. In 2014-2015, she served on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) work group that issued recommendations for revisions to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). In 2016, she served as advisor to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee (FWICC). Her “Learning to Listen” engineering ethics teaching module was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) as exemplary in infusing ethics into engineering education.


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