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Scientist's Firing After 36 Years Fuels 'PC' Debate at UCLA

Dr. James Enstrom

Dr. James Enstrom (James Enstrom)

A longtime professor at UCLA, told that he would not be rehired because his "research is not aligned with the academic mission" of his department, says he's being fired after 36 years at the prestigious school because his scientific beliefs are "politically incorrect." But UCLA says Dr. James Enstrom's politics have nothing to do with its decision.

Enstrom, an epidemiologist at UCLA's School of Public Health, has a history of running against the grain. In 2003 he wrote a study, published in the British Medical Journal, in which he found no causal relationship between secondhand smoke and tobacco-related death – a conclusion that drew fire both because it was contrary to popular scientific belief and because it was funded by Philip Morris.

Now Enstrom says his studies show no causal link between diesel soot and death in California – findings that once again set him far apart from the pack and put him in direct conflict with the California Air Resources Board, which says its new standards on diesel emissions will save 9,400 lives between 2011 and 2025 and will reduce health care costs by as much as $68 billion in the state.

The expected benefits of the new standards have been used to justify their estimated $5.5 billion price tag, which opponents say will cripple the California trucking industry at a time when the state can least afford it. The new standards, the critics warn, also could set the stage for national regulations.

Enstrom questions the science behind the new emissions standards, and he has raised concerns about the two key reports on which they were based – exposing the author of one study as having faked his credentials and the panel that issued the other study as having violated its term limits.

He says his views are what have gotten him fired, raising serious concerns not only about the diesel regulations but about academic freedom and scientific research as a whole.

"It's quite unfortunate that it's come to this, considering I've been in this school 36 and three-quarter years," Enstrom said. "… but the reason I'm so passionate about this is because the careers of thousands of California businessmen are on the line."

Enstrom says he is committed to exposing flaws in the science and procedures by which the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed a series of regulations on diesel exhaust, the last phase of which will require trucks and buses that enter the state either to be retrofitted or replaced entirely to meet new emission standards.

"The Scientific Review Panel of Toxic Air Contaminates in 1998 declared diesel exhaust a toxic substance based on studying truckers and railroaders from back in the '50s, '60s and '70s, when emissions were much higher," Enstrom told FoxNews.com. "They never factored in, for example, that a very high percentage of truckers are also smokers when evaluating heath issues they may have had, yet they were using this research to declare that all diesel exhaust is a toxic substance."

Enstrom also expressed concerns that the review panel "is supposed to have term limits of up to three years" to keep the panel from being dominated by one school of thought, yet "many of them had been in their posts for over 20 years."

He said he voiced those concerns in 2008 to CARB, former UC President Robert Dynes, and current UC President Mark Yudof. The UC president is charged with making nominations for the Scientific Review Panel.

At least five of the nine panel members have since been replaced.

"Cal EPA had been talking internally for a while just about encouraging some more diversity on the board, in terms of expertise and in terms of opinion, so that's part of the reason for the new appointments," Lindsay VanLaningham, deputy secretary of communications for the California Environmental Protection Agency, told FoxNews.com.

VanLaningham said she wasn't sure what Enstrom's role was in the panel's recent changes, but she confirmed that some of the replaced members had been on the board past their term limits.

"We were under the legal impression that they were permitted to serve if we didn't have a new appointment," she said. "… sometimes it's a lengthy process to find new appointees."

Enstrom also blew the whistle on a CARB staffer, Hien Tran, who authored a report that was central to the legislation – after faking his credentials.

"He said he had a Ph.D. from UC Davis. Turns out he had bought his Ph.D. online for $1,000," Enstrom said.

Tran was demoted, but his report was still used to "set the context for the health benefits of reducing diesel emissions" when the board voted on the trucking regulations, CARB spokesman Stanley Young told FoxNews.com.

What the board didn't take into consideration, Enstrom says, were the many studies, including his own, that contradict its conclusion that diesel soot has caused premature deaths in California.

So in February, he and other scientists presented the board with some of their findings, and in June he co-authored an op-ed for Forbes.com in which he voiced his concerns with the regulations.

Less than a month later he received a letter from UCLA saying his contract would not be renewed because his "research is not aligned with the academic mission of the Department."

Dr. Michael Siegel, professor and associate chairman at Boston University's School of Public Health, says the reasoning raises some red flags.

"The mission of the department is to study the impacts of the environment on human health and that's exactly what Enstrom does," Siegel told FoxNews.com. "…What the department appears to be saying is it's not the nature of his research but the nature of his findings."

Siegel says he doesn't even agree with a lot of Enstrom's findings, but he agrees with his right to relay them without fear of losing his job.

"The significance of this is a threat to academic freedom and it's also a threat to academic science," Siegel said. "If scientists have to produce work that meets a certain view to keep their jobs, researchers are going to stop publishing negative findings for fear of being fired."

But UCLA says Enstrom's findings had nothing to do with his dismissal.

"The nature of research results, political views or popularity are not appropriate factors and are not considered when evaluating individuals for reappointment," Hilary Godwin, associate dean for academic programs at UCLA's School of Public Health, said in a statement.

She said Enstrom's position at the school was non-tenured and was appointed for fixed terms that are renewable subject to established departmental and university review procedures.

When asked why Enstrom's contract wasn't renewed, UCLA spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said the school was unable to comment further because the issue "is considered a confidential personnel matter."

Richard Saller, Dean of Stanford University's School of Humanities and Sciences, says it's not every day that a school will let a research professor go because his research doesn't align with the school's mission, but it does "occasionally happen."

"At Stanford these non-tenured research faculty are generally on soft money from grants, and if the grants dry up or the research of the program/department shifts away from a faculty member's interest, the position may have to be terminated," Saller said.

Dr. Stephen Maxwell, a surgeon at Mercy San Juan Medical Center and volunteer for the American Lung Association, says Enstrom's pattern of being in the severe minority with his scientific findings also raises legitimate concerns.

"If 100 people conclude one thing and another person concludes something completely different, then it's natural for his credibility to be called into question," Maxwell said.

Robert McClernon, president of the California Dump Truck Owners Association, which opposes the diesel standards, says the officials who support them are "systematically quieting down anybody that's against what they're doing," and that Enstrom was just their latest target.

"We go to the board meetings and Mary Nichols will give someone else 15 minutes to talk and will limit us to three," McClernon told FoxNews.com, referring to CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols, who is a former UCLA professor. "It's so one-sided it almost makes you sick to be involved in it, but of course we have to be involved in it because it's our livelihood."

McClernon, who owns a dump truck company in Sacramento, said the regulations not only make it too expensive for companies like his to maintain their fleets but also devalue the trucks they currently own, paralyzing their ability to get loans.

"Right now at Bank of American they pull all your credit lines back away from you because the value of your equipment is no good, so they don't have any basis for collateral," he told FoxNews.com. "So I have no credit line anymore."

Young said Nichols is still an active member of the UCLA community, but neither she nor anyone else on the board had anything to do with the university's vote not to renew Enstrom's contract.

The board's information officer, Karen Caesar, also denied accusations that it didn't heed different perspectives on the diesel regulations.

"We do everything we can to consider smaller businesses and the financial climate of the state and the country, so we don't make these decisions in a vacuum," Caesar told FoxNews.com."These regulations are passed with a lot of thought and consideration and with hearing testimony from all sides."

Caesar says considering California has the worst air in the country and 28 million registered vehicles in a state of 37 million people, the regulations are necessary.

Still, the board is proposing several amendments to the regulations and inviting truckers and others to offer their input in a series of meetings to be held in different parts of the state starting Aug. 31 -- coincidentally, the day after Enstrom's last scheduled payday.

Meanwhile, Enstrom says he's not only utilizing the school's traditional appeals process but has also filed a complaint under UCLA's Whistle Blower Protection Policies, which he says could mean he'll be on the payroll a little longer than previously thought.

"I filed a whistleblower complaint on Friday which I guess, according to the university policy, that trumps the normal grievance process, which I'd already filed early in August… so I just got this email saying they're going to extend my appointment until the grievance process runs or until the end of March," Enstrom told FoxNews.com Monday night. "…it makes no mention of whether they'll keep me on even if I do win in the appeals process, but right now I'll take what I can get."

Anderson confirmed Tuesday that "Dr. Enstrom's appointment has been extended until March 31 or until the grievance process has been completed, whichever comes first," but would not discuss the issue any further because it is a "confidential personnel matter."

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