EXCLUSIVE: UCLA scientist who doubts CARB science may lose job

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line staff writer | 8/24/2010

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

Speak out against the science behind these air rules? If you’re a researcher, it might cost you a faculty job at UCLA.

A longtime academic researcher at UCLA may lose his job for speaking 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 – may be removed from his position after a secret vote of faculty members in his department.

Enstrom has 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, though several amendments to the rule are scheduled to be presented this fall.

The rule is estimated to cost trucking companies between $6 and $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 had learned its top researcher for the Truck and Bus Rule, Hien Tran, had faked his resume and lied repeatedly to his superiors at the air quality agency.

Tran claimed that he had a doctorate degree in statistics from the University of California at Davis, but that was later found to be untrue. Nichols told some board members about the lie. Other board members who were kept in the dark for nearly an entire year, were outraged. Some board members called for a review of the science behind the Truck and Bus Rule.

Tran is still employed at CARB.

“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 said he was disappointed to hear about Enstrom’s reported 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 is one that 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 on the faculty.

“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. I’m not saying those views are wrong. I think Jim got really attacked – not because of his science, but what his results imply.”

Phalen said he wants Enstrom to keep his position at UCLA.

Enstrom said he has noticed science and scientists being urged by political sides to reach certain conclusions in their research. He pointed out that a panel of California scientists set up to review research had members that had spent decades in power, though state statutes required them to be replaced every three years.

“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. “Scientists that hold views similar to mine tend not to be as vociferous.”

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, which is the study of public health, 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, CARB Chairman, Mary Nichols is “an activist environmental lawyer.” He pointed out that 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 the vote.

“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 this week 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 arguments 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.”

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