Many of the comments on the blogs and other news stories have shown no such restraint. Among the worst are those that suggest that, at 23 and with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Sangji was an experienced chemist who should have known better; that her death was, in fact, her own fault; and that UC and Harran are guilty of nothing at all. “Sheri was a big girl, an educated adult responsible for her own actions who did not need to be babysat in the chemistry lab,” one commenter wrote. Others maintain, essentially, that making an example of UC and Harran by throwing the book at them is the only way that the lax attitude toward safety in too many academic labs will be corrected.
Neither of these extreme positions seems appropriate to me. That UC and Harran should face no sanctions given the facts that are known is unacceptable. As Kemsley said to me in a conversation about the case, the only people who think of a 23-year-old as experienced are 21- and 22-year-olds. Sangji was clearly unprepared to conduct the experiment that killed her. Other people in Harran’s lab who were there at the time of the accident were just as ignorant of basic safety procedures.
That said, sending Harran to prison for what are all-too-common safety lapses in academic labs would be overly harsh and almost certainly counterproductive. We need to change the safety culture in academic labs, not shut them down. If Harran is found guilty of the charges against him, a hefty dose of community service—maybe teaching lab courses and lab safety in Los Angeles high schools—would be a much more appropriate penalty to impose on him.Here's my question: does anyone think that Professor Patrick Harran deserves to go to prison? Rudy doesn't. Paul doesn't. (I know that's the gamut of opinion in the chemblogosphere from A to G.) I haven't found anyone who think that Harran actually deserves to go to prison; those commenters that do advocate for it seem to do so pour encourager les autres, i.e. chemistry PIs. That's not just, nor is it going to happen.
I think Harran going to prison is wildly unlikely and probably counterproductive. If Patrick Harran deserves to go to prison for the conditions in his laboratory, there are a lot of PIs in this country that are going to spend time in the slammer. That said, I'm willing to entertain reasons as to why he might deserve the harshest sanction possible.*
I'm inviting readers and commenters to make a rational case as to why Professor Harran deserves prison time. If you don't want to wrestle with the comment box, you can always e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Commenters that are selected by me and/or by popular acclaim will be given a prominent spot on the blog -- probably next Tuesday's headliner for the day. (And if there are no cases for the prosecution (actually the sentencing phase), I'll do it myself.)
*I'm also willing to confess that all of this might be my possible prejudice that "professors who make serious and irresponsible mistakes are too nice and of the wrong socio-economic status to go to prison." But I have fairly serious policy (Kleiman-esque, if anyone cares) views on prisons, especially California ones.