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Testing the theory of diverse thought
UCLA researcher who doubts CARB science fights to keep job

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer

 

Truckers who violate a CARB diesel rule can face thousands in fines.

Speak out against the science behind these air rules? If you’re a researcher, it might cost you a career in the world of political academia.

A longtime academic researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles says his career is in jeopardy because he spoke out against the California Air Resources Board and that agency’s claims about the dangers of diesel exhaust.

Dr. James Enstrom, who has worked at UCLA for 36 years – the last 34 as associate research professor – was removed from his position after a secret vote of faculty members in his department.

Enstrom has since appealed the decision, and as of  mid-September was waiting to learn more. He may remain on the job until March 31, 2011, or until the university’s grievance processes play out.

Enstrom made headlines in recent years after he questioned claims made by CARB regarding diesel particulate matter and public health.

Enstrom said he likely irked top officials at CARB between 2008 and 2009, when he questioned science used to justify the implementation of CARB’s Truck and Bus rule, also known as the Retrofit Rule.

The rule requires trucking fleets to install diesel particulate matter filters and upgrade their truck engines beginning in 2012, although several amendments to the rule are scheduled to be presented this fall.

 The rule is estimated to cost trucking companies $6 to $10 billion.

In December 2009, a scandal emerged when it was revealed that CARB Chairman Mary Nichols told some but not all CARB board members that the agency’s top researcher for the Truck and Bus Rule, Hien Tran, had faked his resume and lied repeatedly about it.

Tran claimed that he had a doctoral degree in statistics from UC-Davis. Enstrom pointed out the degree came from a website that offers degrees for $1,000.

Nichols told some board members about Tran’s lie, but others who were kept in the dark for nearly an entire year were outraged. After the scandal eventually came to light, some members called for a review of the science behind the Truck and Bus Rule.

Tran is still employed at CARB, and the agency has continued implementation of the rule.

“If there is an ongoing controversy in science, you don’t put out regulations that cost billions of dollars,” Enstrom said.

OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Director Joe Rajkovacz works on CARB issues and was disappointed to hear about Enstrom’s termination.

“This termination, along with the Tran scandal at CARB, is a discredit to both the science and initiatives to regulate truck emissions,” Rajkovacz said.

Enstrom said his faculty position isn’t eligible for tenure – the process by which professors typically gain job protection. As such, some in his department have used a technicality, he said, to eliminate his position.

“I’ve had to prove my worthiness every single year I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve done it all on my merits in terms of the quality of my work and the research funding I’ve brought in.”

Robert Phalen, co-director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine, said Enstrom is “a good, objective scientist.”

“He’s been really attacked from a lot of sides,” Phalen said. “In my opinion, his science is good.”

Phalen said Enstrom’s department at UCLA “is a very fine department,” and he praised CARB Chairman Mary Nichols as a dedicated public servant.

“But I think we live in times when people are interested in bigger objectives than just supporting good science, and taking into account good science,” Phalen said. “And these bigger objectives can be political and can be sociological. I think Jim ran afoul of those kinds of views.”

Enstrom said he has noticed science and scientists being urged by political sides to reach certain conclusions in their research.

On top of his criticism of CARB’s science, Enstrom’s popularity may have suffered for bucking yet another abuse of the system, when he questioned the Scientific Review Panel of Toxic Air Contaminates for not abiding by three-year term limits.

One such panel member was Dr. John Froines, who was recently kicked off the panel after serving 26 years. Froines, who earned notoriety during political riots in the late ’60s as one of the “Chicago Seven,” now teaches at the UCLA School of Public Health. 

“I’ve really brought to light a number of problems with this process that have generally been swept under the rug by many others,” Enstrom said.

Enstrom, who was inspired as a boy by the groundbreaking physics research of Albert Einstein and others, studied under Nobel Laureates Melvin Schwartz at Stanford and Luis Alvarez at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. He later shifted his focus to epidemiology while realizing he had a passion for helping to discover why some humans live longer lives.

Enstrom said he is examining his options, including an appeal process. He said several supporters in the department abstained from the vote rather than leave themselves vulnerable to retaliation over their jobs.

A letter sent from his department reportedly stated Enstrom’s work “is not aligned with the academic mission of the Department.”

“There is nothing wrong with the research, but it has upset the more powerful faculty members,” Enstrom told Land Line. “They’ve decided to use the technicalities available to them to end the position.”

Enstrom pointed out that as opposed to previous chairpersons who had science backgrounds, Nichols is “an activist environmental lawyer.” He said CARB doesn’t employ a single epidemiologist with a doctorate among its hundreds of employees.

“Nichols was at UCLA before she got appointed to CARB three years ago,” Enstrom said. “These are not good things. This agency should be headed by a scientist who believes in objective, honest science.”

Enstrom said he isn’t sure how the process will play out, but he will appeal.

“I hope I can still retain some status while the appeal runs; otherwise, the appeal process doesn’t have much meaning because I’ll be gone,” Enstrom said. “I don’t believe this action has ever been done in this way. For someone with my seniority and my credentials, I would think this has never been done at UCLA.”

Enstrom said that despite his battle to keep his job, he believes truth will prevail. He points out that no one has publicly questioned his science. A string of mainstream newspaper articles have explained his side of the recent controversy, a departure from years past when CARB proposals seemed to be rubber-stamped with little argument.

“It’s a system gone awry,” Enstrom said. “The system is so screwed up. But it’s getting unscrewed now.” LL

 

charlie_morasch@landlinemag.com

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