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Researcher files whistle-blower retaliation complaint against UCLA

A UCLA environmental health sciences researcher whose appointment was not renewed this year has filed a whistle-blower retaliation complaint against the university, saying he's being punished for publishing politically incorrect research findings and for previous whistle-blowing against colleagues.

UCLA officials had planned to end epidemiologist James Enstrom's appointment August 30 but extended it until March 2011 after outside groups intervened, including a group of California Republican legislators and the Pennsylvania-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Chris Radcliff/Flickr

University officials said Enstrom's appointment wasn't renewed because his research wasn't properly aligned with the mission of his department and did not meet financial requirements – not for political reasons.

Enstrom wasn't tenured or on a tenure track, but he has worked at UCLA for 34 years. He believes UCLA faculty voted not to reappoint him this year because of two main issues: his role in challenging the makeup of the California Air Resources Board and his controversial research on fine particulate air pollution, which he presented to the board [PDF] in February with other scientists.

Earlier, as the board was planning to adopt strict regulations on diesel truck emissions, Enstrom argued the group had not fairly evaluated California-specific studies (such as his own research) looking at the health impacts of diesel particulate matter, according to Inside EPA.

In 2008, Enstrom complained at an Air Resources Board hearing that lawmakers and board officials were improperly allowing some members of its Scientific Review Panel on Toxic Air Contaminants to serve far beyond term limits. He said some members had served for more than 20 years, locking out other scientists such as himself.

One of the panelists at issue, John Froines, is a colleague of Enstrom's in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA's School of Public Health.

Following Enstrom's complaint, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit in 2009 saying that panel members shouldn't be able to serve such long terms. California Watch reported in August that the Sacramento-based group, which has a history of fighting environmental legislation, is taking credit for the recent ouster of Froines and four other members of the panel. 

Enstrom says he believes Froines was behind the university's decision not to reappoint him. Froines declined to comment to the Daily Bruin.

The Natural Resources Defense Council calls Enstrom the "lone critic" of the scientific research that says diesel soot is a major health hazard. The group cites a 2006 critique of Enstrom's research on the topic from the journal Inhalation Toxicology.

Previously, Enstrom had faced criticism for his research and for having an industry bias. The American Cancer Society accused him of scientific misconduct after he authored a 2003 British Medical Journal article funded by tobacco companies that questioned a link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. After an internal UCLA investigation, Enstrom was cleared of the charges of scientific misconduct, Inside EPA reported. 

Enstrom later vocally opposed a proposed campuswide ban on tobacco money for research at the University of California, Science Magazine [PDF] reported.

UCLA first informed Enstrom he'd be laid off in February 2010, saying his research funds were overdrawn. Enstrom told the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that UCLA was to blame for the overdraft because the university inexplicably charged his salary to his research fund. A UCLA official did not respond to a request for comment.

After UCLA denied Enstrom's initial appeal, he filed an academic complaint and a whistle-blower retaliation claim. 

A June 9 letter from Richard Jackson, chairman of UCLA's Environmental Health Sciences department, told Enstrom he was being laid off because his research was "not aligned with the academic mission of the Department, and your research output and ability to secure continued funding does not meet the minimum requirements for the Department."

Then last month, a group of 21 Republican lawmakers led by Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, coordinated a defense of Enstrom, penning a letter to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block demanding an accounting for the firing:

Based on our understanding of the situation, he has not been given valid justification for the termination of his 34-year exemplary academic career at the UCLA School of Public Health. It appears to us that he is being dismissed in order to silence his scientific views on the health effects of fine particulate air pollution.

The letter threatened a hearing if the university didn't let Enstrom hang on to his appointment pending his appeal.

If Dr. Enstrom is dismissed before his appeal has been fully evaluated, we plan to promptly hold a hearing in Sacramento on this matter. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also intervened in the matter with a letter to Block

Enstrom said UCLA decided last week to extend his appointment until March 2011. Although he says he could simply retire and enjoy life, he feels an obligation to fight. He says UCLA hasn't given him any explanation as to how his work is out of sync with the department's mission, nor has it defined the financial requirements he failed to meet.

"if you start ending scientists' careers – especially one with a career as long as mine – without a valid reason, in my mind you don't have a university anymore," Enstrom said.



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