Wednesday, August 18, 2010
UCLA School of Public Health Fires Professor James Enstrom, Apparently Because It Does Not Like the Direction of His Research Findings
Apparent Disrespect for Academic Freedom and Violation of Due Process Should Alarm Everyone Concerned about Academic Integrity
UCLA School of Public Health professor James Enstrom has been fired from his position in the School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences under the primary claim that his "research is not aligned with the academic mission of the Department."
Dr. Enstrom received official and final notice of the School's decision not to reappoint him (as of August 30, 2010) in a June 30 letter from the Chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. This decision was confirmed in a July 29 letter from the Associate Dean for Academic Programs at the School.
The decision to terminate Dr. Enstrom's appointment followed a vote of the Environmental Health Sciences Department's faculty regarding his re-appointment.
In both letters, the primary reason for Dr. Enstrom's non-reappointment was that the Department faculty determined that his research was not aligned with the Department's mission.
In one letter, the primary reason for non-reappointment is that: "the faculty of [the Department of] Environmental Health Sciences have determined that your research is not aligned with the academic mission of the Department...". In the other letter, the primary reason for non-reappointment is that: "the faculty of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences has determined your research is not aligned with the academic mission of the Department...".
Thus, the primary stated reason for Dr. Enstrom's firing was that the faculty of his academic department had come to the decision that his research was not aligned with the Department's academic mission.
The story was reported in an article in the Bakersfield Californian and another article in the Sacramento Bee. It was also reported on Dr. Carl Phillips' blog Ep-ology, at Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, and at the American Council on Science and Health's Facts and Fears blog.
The Rest of the Story
Dr. Enstrom has held a continuous academic appointment at the UCLA School of Public Health for the past 34 years. Initially, his position was based in the Dean's Office. Since 2004, his position has been based in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences.
The stated mission of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences is to: "explore the fundamental relationship between human health and the environment."
In particular, the specific mission of one of the major centers housed in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences - the Southern California Particle Center (SCPC) is: "to identify and conduct high priority research to better understand the effects of particulate matter (PM) and ensure protection of public health." The SCPC is led by Professor John Froines of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and its research focus in the past decade has been on studying the health effects of particulate matter.
In fact, a presentation by Dr. Froines summarizing the work of the SCPC highlights its investigations into the effects of fine particulate air pollution.
Dr. Froines' major research interest is described as: "Chemical mechanisms and exposure assessment related to the health effects from exposure to airborne particulate matter."
In fact, an enormous amount of research by many faculty in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences involves investigation of the health effects of particulate matter, including fine particulates (PM2.5) and diesel particulate exhaust. The following are publications out of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences faculty, all of which focus on the health effects of particulate matter air pollution:
AK Di, Stefano E, You Y, Rodriguez CE, Schmitz DA, Kumagai Y, Miguel AH, Eiguren-Fernandez A, Kobayashi T, Avol E, Froines JR. Determination of Four Quinones in Diesel Exhaust Particles, SRM 1649a and Atmospheric PM2.5. Aerosol Science and Technology 2003.
Li N, Sioutas C, Cho A, Schmitz D, Misra C, Sempf J, Wang M, Oberley T, Froines J, Nel A. Ultrafine particulate pollutants induce oxidative stress and mitochondrial damage. Environmental Health Perspectives 2003; 111(4): 455-60.
Li N, Kim S, Wang M, Froines J, Sioutas C, Nel A. Use of a stratified oxidative stress model to study the biological effects of ambient concentrated and diesel exhaust particulate matter. Inhalation Toxicology 2002; 14(5): 459-86.
Yifang Zhu, Arantzazu Eiguren-Fernandez, William Hinds and Antonio H. In-vehicle exposure to ultrafine particles on Los Angeles freeways. Environmental Science and Technology 2007; 41: 2138-2145 .
Zhu, Y., Fung, D.C., Kennedy, N., Hinds, W.C. and Eiguren-Fernandez, A. "Measurements of Ultrafine Particles and Other Vehicular Pollutants inside a Mobile Exposure System on Los Angeles Freeways". J Air & Waste Mgmt Assoc 2008; 58: 424-434.
Zhu, Y., Eiguren-Fernandez, A., Hinds, W.C., and Miguel, A.H. "In-Vehicle Exposure To Ultrafine Particles On Los Angeles Freeways". Environ Sci. & Technol 2007; 41: 2138-2145.
Zhu, Y.F., Kuhn, T., Mayo, P., and Hinds, W. "Comparison of Daytime and Nighttime Concentration Profiles and Size Distributions of Ultrafine particles near a Major Highway". Environ Sci & Technol 2006; 40: 2531-2536.
Zhu, Y., Hinds, W.C., Shen, S., and Sioutas, C. "Seasonal Trends of Concentration and Size Distribution of Ultrafine Particles near Major Highways in Los Angeles". Aerosol Sci Tech 2004; 38(S1): 5-13.
Zhu, Y., Hinds, W.C., Kim, S., Shen, S., and Sioutas, C. "Study on ultrafine particles near a major highway with heavy-duty traffic". Atmospheric Environment 2002; 36: 4323-4335.
Hinds, W.C. "Particulate Air Pollution". In Southern California Environmental Report Card 2001, A. M. Winer, ed. 2001; UCLA Institute of the Environment, Los Angeles, CA.
Wu, J., D. Houston, F. Lurmann, P. Ong and A. M. Winer. Exposure of PM2.5 and EC from Diesel and Gasoline Vehicles in Communities near the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. Atmospheric Environment 2009; 43: 1962-1971.
Wu, J., A. M. Winer and R. J. Delfino. Exposure Assessment of Particulate Matter Air Pollution Before, During and After the 2003 Southern California Wildfires. Atmospheric Environment 2006; 40: 3333-3348.
Fruin, S. A., A. M. Winer and C. E. Rodes. Black Carbon Concentrations in California Vehicles and Estimation of In-Vehicle Diesel Exhaust Particulate Matter. Atmospheric Environment 2004; 38: 4123-4133.
P. Cicero-Fernandez, V. Torres, A. Rosales, H. Cesar, K. Dorland, R. Muñoz, R. Uribe, A. P. Martinez. Evaluation of Human Exposure to Ambient PM10 in the Metropolitan Area of Mexico City using a GIS-Based Methodology. Journal of Air and Waste Management 2001; 51: 1886-1593.
P. Cicero-Fernández, W.A. Thistlewaite, Y.I. Falcon, and I.M. Guzmán. Analysis of TSP, PM10 and PM10/TSP Ratio Distributions in Mexico City Metropolitan Area, A Temporal and Spatial Approach. Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 1993; 3(1).
And What About Dr. Enstrom's Research?
It turns out that a major focus of Dr. Enstrom's work during the past six years has been ...
... the effects of fine particulate matter air pollution on human health.
In fact, Dr. Enstrom was just invited by the Health Effects Institute to submit a full proposal under an RFP related to the health effects of air pollution. His preliminary application was accepted, meaning that (had he not been fired) he was about to submit a full proposal, entitled: "Criteria Pollutants and Mortality in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study Cohort."
In 2005, Dr. Enstrom published a study that examined the relationship between fine particulate exposure and total mortality among nearly 50,000 elderly Californians. This was one of the largest studies ever to look at the relationship between PM2.5 and mortality rates.
Clearly, Dr. Enstrom's research is directly related to the mission of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. In fact, his work is directly aligned with the stated mission of the Department and one of its major centers and his research area is exactly the same as that of several other faculty members in the Department.
Since it is clear that Dr. Enstrom's research is directly aligned with the mission of the Department, how can the Department and the School claim that his research is "not aligned with the academic mission of the Department"?
Apprently, the problem with Dr. Enstrom's research is not the nature of the research, which obviously aligns perfectly with the mission of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Instead, the problem appears to be the direction of his research findings.
Dr. Enstrom happened to find that there was no significant relationship between PM2.5 exposure and overall mortality, at least during the time period 1983-2002.
This is apparently what the UCLA School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences mean when they conclude that Dr. Enstrom's research does not align with the "mission" of the Department. The nature of his research aligns perfectly, coinciding closely with the work of several other faculty members and coinciding perfectly with a major center housed in the Department. But apparently, the direction of his findings does not align with the Department's mission.
In other words, the mission of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences is not to "explore the fundamental relationship between human health and the environment." Instead, its mission is to show that fine particulate matter pollution and other environmental exposures adversely affect human health.
If your research fails to show an adverse effect of an environmental exposure on human health, then your research is apparently no longer "aligned" with the mission of the Department and School.
As long as your research results are "favorable" to increased regulation, then it appears your research is aligned with the School's mission. But as soon as you obtain negative findings and report them, you have deviated from the School's mission and you are at risk of being fired.
Think about the negative implications of this mentality for the integrity of research and of science. If your career success - and your ability to maintain your job - are going to measured by your ability to produce positive findings of the adverse effects of whatever you are studying - then you are going to become biased in your research.
How can we ever have objective environmental science research if faculty members are scared that if they report negative findings, they are going to lose their jobs? You want to talk about publication bias? The actions of the UCLA School of Public Health with respect to Dr. Enstrom's firing may well contribute toward publication bias. If you can't report the findings of your research as they actually come out because you are afraid of losing your job, then negative findings would never be reported and there would be a complete destruction of scientific integrity.
Moreover, the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA appears to be interfering with academic freedom. If they are going to conclude that a faculty member's research doesn't align with the mission of the Department because they are unhappy with the direction of the research findings, then faculty are no longer free to express their opinions. Expressing a dissenting opinion could be grounds for termination.
The actions of UCLA in this case appear to be an alarming threat to the integrity of academic freedom and scientific integrity in academia.
As it turns out, Dr. Enstrom's findings about the lack of a significant relationship between PM2.5 exposure and overall mortality are not an anomaly. Nor are they a result of poorly conducted science. A study by Dr. Michael Jerrett at UC Berkeley, using data from the Cancer Prevention Study - II, found exactly the same result. Dr. Jerrett reported no increased relative risk for all-cause mortality associated with PM2.5 exposure. Specifically, he reported "null PM2.5 effects on all cause mortality."
Dr. Jerrett is a well-respected scientist who conducted research similar to that of Dr. Enstrom and found essentially the same result. In fact, he reported the results of another California study which found no evidence of increased heart disease mortality associated with PM2.5 exposure among males.
I am not arguing here that PM2.5 is not a major health threat. There are reasons why one might not detect effects on overall mortality and any conclusion must be based on the totality of the evidence, not based on a single study. Dr. Jerrett was apparently struggling to find an explanation for the lack of a significant association between particulate exposure and overall mortality. The finding does not necessarily rule out a positive association between fine particulates and cardiovascular disease. My point is simply to show that Dr. Enstrom's findings were validated in an independent study, thus refuting any argument that his research was invalid. It appears that his finding of a lack of a significant association between fine particulate exposure and overall mortality is not an anomaly.
Is there no room for a difference of opinion in a public health institution? Must all faculty members tow a certain party line, regardless of what their research shows?
Well, at UCLA School of Public Health, at least in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, the answer to both questions appears to be yes. If your research happens to report negative findings, you are apparently in danger of being terminated because your research suddenly becomes misaligned with the Department mission.
You know, there are a large number of reasons why a faculty member can be terminated. In fact, a non-tenured faculty member can essentially be terminated simply because the Department Chair no longer wants that faculty member in the Department. Great deference is given to the School in making faculty re-appointments. In light of this, it is striking that the Department and the School would go to such an effort to emphasize that the reason for Dr. Enstrom's firing is that his research is not aligned with the mission of the Department.
It creates the appearance that the faculty was out to get him because they didn't like the direction of his findings.
Not only is this a danger to academic freedom and academic integrity, but it also is a form of censorship. If we suppress dissent by making sure that those with differing opinions cannot freely publish their findings without the threat of losing their jobs, then we are in essence censoring dissenting opinions. In fact, what we have just seen occur at UCLA is a very effective form of censorship. It cuts right to the heart: it threatens to destroy a faculty member's career and possibly livelihood if he or she publishes negative findings.
I need to make an important point at this time. I am not arguing here either for or against Dr. Enstrom's reappointment. There could be valid reasons for his non-reappointment. However, that his research does not align with the Department's mission is not one of them. My argument is related to the primary reason given for his termination in the official termination letter and to the process by which he was terminated. These arguments do not depend on whether or not there was merit in the decision to terminate Dr. Enstrom. They depend, instead, on an analysis of the validity of the stated reason for his termination and the process that led to the decision.
In the Bakersfield Californian article, Department Chair Dr. Richard Jackson alludes to "poor quality science" being the reason for Enstrom's termination. If that is the case, then why does the termination letter fail to mention poor quality science and instead, list the primary reason for termination as Enstrom's research not aligning with the Department's mission? And if poor quality science was the reason for his termination, why was a vote of the Department faculty an appropriate way to make the decision?
The UCLA School of Public Health has every right to fire Dr. Enstrom because of poor quality science, or because they are unhappy with his funding sources, or because they are displeased with his productivity (the second reason stated in his termination letter), or for any number of other reasons. However, these reasons do not require or merit a vote of the Departmental faculty, nor do they warrant a statement in the termination letter falsely stating the primary reason for the termination. We have to, therefore, take the School's and the Department's word for it and assume that when they say he was fired because the Department faculty do not view his research as being aligned with the Department's mission, they mean it.
Something just doesn't smell right and perhaps that is why Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee speculated that there is something more sinister going on. Walters reveals that Enstrom was the one who exposed the fact that a previous member of the Air Resources Board - Hien Tran - whose report on diesel emissions was the basis for tough regulations, had falsified his academic credentials. Walters wrote: "By all appearances, not only did the ARB cover up Tran's falsification but its sycophants on the UCLA faculty are punishing the man who blew the whistle. If the legislature's oversight committees and investigative staffs were doing their jobs, they'd delve into this mess."
Violation of Due Process
I find it distasteful that the decision to terminate Dr. Enstrom's employment was made by a secret vote of his faculty colleagues - the Departmental faculty. In general, I think employment decisions - especially firing decisions - should be made by the Department Chair in consultation with the Dean of the School. It seems inappropriate to have faculty making firing decisions about one another.
This is especially problematic because faculty compete with each other. To have one faculty member making a firing decision about another faculty member is inappropriate. There are numerous conflicts of interest that are inevitably going to enter into the process - conflicts that have nothing to do with the actual qualifications or merit of the faculty member to continue in his or her appointment.
In this case, there are a number of conflicts of interest, some of them blatant. For one, Dr. Enstrom's research findings conflict with those of several other faculty members. Thus, these faculty members have a potential vested interest in ousting Dr. Enstrom from the faculty, or at least, they were given the opportunity to exercise any grudges that might have against Dr. Enstrom because of his conflicting research findings.
More blatant is the fact that Dr. Froines was allowed to participate in the decision. Dr. Froines has the serious potential to have an incentive to retaliate against Dr. Enstrom, because it was Enstrom's actions that led recently to the removal of Dr. Froines from his position on the California Scientific Review Panel for Toxic Air Contaminants, a position that Dr. Froines held for 26 years.
Although state law (Health and Safety Code Section 39670-39671) states that members of the Scientific Review Panel shall have terms of three years, Dr. Froines was apparently on the panel for 26 years. Dr. Enstrom was the one who pointed this out to the legislature and the Air Resources Board. A lawsuit was filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation and eventually, the administrators of the Scientific Review Panel complied with state law and dismissed Froines from the panel.
Surely, one would not want Dr. Froines to be participating in a decision on whether to fire Dr. Enstrom, given the potential incentive for him to retaliate against Enstrom.
To make matters worse, it seems that Dr. Froines had a history of holding a grudge against Enstrom, as he apparently publicly ridiculed Dr. Enstrom during a June 20, 2003 Scientific Review Panel meeting. The panel appears to have been discussing Dr. Enstrom's research and Dr. Froines stated: "As a member of the UCLA School of Public Health, I apologize." This was followed by laughter. Then Dr. Stan Glantz said: "You should." This was followed by more laughter. Then Dr. Glantz said: "We're doing a study of how that paper came to pass. And it's going to get even more unpleasant." Froines said: "James Enstrom's paper." And Glantz said: "that dreamt up by Philip Morris."
That UCLA would allow a decision about Dr. Enstrom's firing to be made by faculty colleagues with these potential conflicts - especially with Dr. Froines participating - is beyond me.
Once again, I am not arguing the merit of Dr. Enstrom's research on secondhand smoke - the topic of the paper that was apparently ridiculed at the SRP meeting. I am simply stating that there is an apparent reason why Dr. Froines should not participate in the decision about whether to fire Dr. Enstrom because of the conflict between them.
To me, the worst part of the story, however, is that in my view, due process was violated because although the departmental faculty were entrusted with the responsibility of making the decision whether to retain or fire Enstrom, Dr. Enstrom was apparently not given the opportunity to directly address the faculty and present his side of the story prior to the departmental vote on his job. In fact, he had been scheduled to give a presentation on his research regarding fine particulate matter and mortality, but that presentation was canceled by the department chair and Dr. Enstrom apparently never had the opportunity to directly address the faculty, answer questions, and present his side of the story about his research prior to the vote to fire him.
I believe that the opportunity to directly address the people who are accusing you of violating your contract or violating the mission of the school is an essential part of due process, especially if they are going to directly make a decision about your employment status. It is not a fair trial if the accused is not given the opportunity to testify in his defense.
In the end, regardless of the reasons for terminating Dr. Enstrom, I do not believe that it was appropriate for the decision to be made by the department faculty through a secret vote after a discussion at which Enstrom was not present and without Enstrom being given the opportunity to directly address the voting faculty and present his side of the story. I think that violates due process and is an inappropriate way to terminate a faculty member, even if the reasons given for termination were true and accurate.
As you can see, this is a complicated story and I have done my best to present it accurately and with a focus on the most relevant issues. Based on my assessment, I agree with Dan Walters that an investigation is warranted into the process of this firing decision and the validity of the stated reasons for the termination. This story is very concerning for the principles of academic freedom and academic and scientific integrity, as well as for the principle of due process in academic employment decisions. I therefore hope that this commentary is just the beginning of what appears to be a much-needed investigation and discussion.