Marc Edwards, a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, is the recipient of the inaugural Disobedience Award from the MIT Media Lab, along with Mona Hanna-Attisha, Hurley Medical Center’s pediatric residency program director, for their “effective, responsible, ethical disobedience across disciplines” regarding their work on exposing widespread lead-in-water contamination in Flint, Michigan.
The $250,000 award was presented July 21 at MIT Media Lab’s event, Defiance, an event exploring the impact of dissent. During the daylong event, activists, scientists, engineers, designers, legal experts, and leaders of institutions participated in sessions on diverse issues, probing the boundaries of nonviolent resistance for the benefit of a productive and healthy society, according to its website.
The Disobedience Award’s objectives are to build awareness and support of disobedience-robust work being done around the world and to promote role models for younger people. The work being honored impacts society in positive ways and is consistent with a set of key principles, including nonviolence, creativity, courage, and responsibility for one’s actions.
Approximately 7,800 nominations for the award were submitted from every continent except Antarctica. Submissions included well-known names: Tibetan activist and blogger Tsering Woeser, Hawaiian homeless advocate Twinkle Borge, Muslim rapper and activist Sofia Ashraf, and the U.S. National Park Service, for advocating environmental stewardship.
Working with Flint residents, Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, and his water study team, executed an unprecedented independent evaluation of water contamination in Flint residents’ homes. Together with Hanna-Attisha and Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters, they exposed problems with legionella and lead, vindicated residents’ concerns, and brought national attention to the crisis.
In January 2016, both Hanna-Attisha and Edwards were appointed members of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, which seeks long-term solutions to Flint’s water system.
Edwards’ role in uncovering the problem has been widely reported by media from around the world, including The New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, Time, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and Scientific American.
Before Flint, Edwards’ investigative science work in the nation’s capital exposed elevated lead in drinking water, copper pinhole leaks, and agency scientific misconduct during the Washington, D.C., lead crisis in 2000-2004 and its aftermath.
Edwards was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007. Among his numerous other accolades are the 2010 Praxis Award in Professional Ethics from Villanova University, a 2013 IEEE Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest, a 2016 Smithsonian Institution Innovation Award for Social Progress, and the President’s Medal from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Edwards, the nationally renowned expert on municipal water quality, was named among the most influential people in the world by Fortune, Time, and Politico, and was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, all in 2016.
Edwards earned his bachelor’s degree in biophysics from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1986 and master’s and doctoral degrees in environmental engineering at the University of Washington in 1988 and 1991, respectively. He joined Virginia Tech in 1997.