Dan Jaffe says he didn’t set out intending to go all rogue with his science.
“What happened is I was getting discouraged,” he says. “I was starting to wonder whether anyone would even be allowed to ask these basic questions. So I went outside the system.”
Jaffe is no anarchist, but an atmospheric chemist at the University of Washington.
For 20-plus years he’s followed the conventional path for doing science in this country, which is to apply for grants from the government or corporate-backed groups.
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He’s been good at it, too, winning $7.2 million in two decades that his lab has used to publish more than 100 scientific papers
on air pollution.
But he says something felt blocked in the pipeline when he sent out a proposal to study part of the biggest environmental controversy in the Northwest since the spotted owl: the coal trains.
“I got the sense through channels that nobody wanted to touch this,” Jaffe said from his lab at the UW-Bothell campus.
As he wrote on a website: “We need to know what will be the likely air quality and human health impacts from trains in our region before making decisions on shipping coal by rail. Unfortunately none of the federal, state or local agencies are able to fund or support this work for political reasons.”
Well, it’s too soon to judge if that last accusation is right. The feds and the state are only now weighing if they should study the air-quality effects of possibly tripling the number of loaded coal trains passing through Seattle from Montana. But it’s true they’re being lobbied hard not to.
“There is no scientific research or study, or even anecdotal evidence, that coal dust from trains has ever negatively impacted a community in Washington,” BNSF Railway wrote the government in January.
“So we don’t even want to know?” Jaffe asks. “Why not look?”
Feeling stymied, Jaffe is trying an end-around. He’s going straight to you to fund his coal-train study.
Two former UW researchers started it last year after they became disillusioned with the way science is funded (or often, not).
Can’t get your research backed by the usual government and corporate suspects? Then take it to the streets.
Jaffe says he’s never tried going guerrilla like this before. As of Tuesday evening, 55 people had donated about $4,000 toward his $18,000 research budget.
His plan is to set up air monitors and Web cameras along the rail line north of Seattle this summer to check whether passing trains give off spikes of coal dust or diesel exhaust that are above legal health limits.
“I honestly don’t know if the coal dust is important,” Jaffe says.
His goal is to publish the data, whatever it shows, at an open-access forum online. Where anyone can see it and use it — coal-train proponents and opponents alike.
Other scientists trying crowdfunding include gun-policy researchers, one of whom noted she’s asking for the public’s help
precisely to get around Congress’ political refusal to fund most research on guns.
What’s fascinating about Jaffe’s experiment is that big industrial developments like coal terminals have long been able to limit official study of their projects.
Their argument here is that it isn’t fair to review things that happen along the existing rail lines, or after the coal is shipped overseas.
The government should study changes at the loading-dock site only, not the regional or even global implications of shipping coal.
Legally, that may be right. But the Web makes this framework moot. There’s now little stopping a determined scientist from going rogue — from studying whatever he or she wants and submitting the results straight to the court of public opinion.
Assuming the public will bankroll it first.
I’m sure this won’t go over well with the powers that be. It sounds like democracy and the free market in action to me.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org