Tech’s Flint water professor wins MIT disobedience award, plans to give away prize money | Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards will win half of a $250,000 award Friday for standing up to government authorities during the Flint, Mich., water crisis. Then, he plans to give his money away.

Edwards, a Tech engineering professor pivotal in blowing the whistle on the infamous water crisis, will win the Disobedience Award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab.

He will share the award with Michigan pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, who conducted medical research that aided in exposing the water crisis.

The pair will accept the award at MIT on Friday evening in an event that will be streamed live online at media.mit.edu.

In a telephone interview from the airport in Boston, Edwards said he is currently “in negotiations to give the money to my fellow disobedient ones in Flint” who helped expose the crisis. That includes the residents who reached out to Edwards and helped him conduct the water testing.

“They’re deserving of the financial benefits. … They’ll use it well, I’m sure,” Edwards said.

The award’s prize functions like a MacArthur genius grant, an accolade given to Edwards in 2007, giving no strings attached money to its winners. It’s designed to reward people for standing up in the face of authority to challenge norms for the potential benefit of society.

The prize is a one-time experiment, but could be repeated in the future, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito wrote in a Medium post announcing the award.

Edwards said the award is special because it promotes standing up in difficult situations.

“Society needs to do a better job of recognizing people who make a sacrifice for doing what’s right,” Edwards said. “There are all kinds of awards for people who are obedient suck-ups.

“This one is different.”

Edwards fought against state and federal agencies, arguing that Flint’s water was inundated with lead particulate after local officials switched water sources in 2014 to save money.

Edwards and a team of Tech students, faculty and researchers worked with local residents to test the water and identify the source of their lead-tainted water. Hanna-Attisha conducted tests on children to show elevated blood lead levels around the city.

The work resulted in national attention on water infrastructure, a state of emergency, criminal charges against public officials and a switch back to an old water system.

It also came at a great personal cost to Edwards who spent more than $150,000 of his discretionary research funds and personal money working on the project.

He has since raised much of that money back through a GoFundMe campaign and an Ut Prosim grant award from Virginia Tech. He was also named a university distinguished professor, one of the highest honors bestowed on Tech faculty, earlier this year.

The personal cost and professional risks of battling federal and state agencies was worth it, simply because children were protected from lead in water, Edwards said last year.

“This was priceless,” he said. “We’ll go to our graves knowing we stood up for Flint kids when no one else could or would.”

Other finalists for the award included:

  • James Hansen, a scientist who studies climate change and is sometimes called the “father of climate change awareness.”
  • Freedom University professors, a group of University of Georgia professors who taught undocumented students who were unable to afford their out-of-state tuition in Georgia even if they lived in the state long enough to be considered Georgia residents.
  • Water protectors of Standing Rock, a group of Native Americans who began a camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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