Reading Paul's thoughts about both Sheri Sangji and Jason Altom were interesting and saddening. Go over there and read the whole thing! Here's the conclusion that I found affecting:
Changing the culture of an institution—especially one as intractable as chemical academia—is extraordinarily difficult. But so long as we forgo meaningful changes in favor of cosmetic ones that we don’t even bother to sustain anyway, we will continue to experience frustration and tragedy. One wonders what magnitude of disruption is necessary for our community to commit itself to improvement. Apparently, it is much greater than the death of a twenty-something student.How do large institutions change permanently? I can think of a few ways -- readers can probably think of more:
- The gun to the head: Funding is added or taken away, new laws are passed, lawsuits are lost (or won). Change is forced on the institution.
- From the top: Leadership decides (for whatever reason) to make changes. Examples: handover at the White House between presidencies, the transition at Apple between Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Microsoft's late-90's pivot to the Internet.
- From the bottom: As an organization's people changes, the organization changes with it. Imagine the difference between the US Army between 2001-2003 (senior people may have served in Operation Desert Storm, most have some foreign peacekeeping deployments, few combat veterans) and the current US Army (the median infantry soldier has at least one deployment, most officers and senior NCOs have multiple tours and are combat veterans.)
- Voluntary change: People within the institution have a change of heart, decide to alter their direction. Examples: I can't really think of any (doesn't mean there aren't).
Right now, those of us who follow academic chemical safety are hoping that "voluntary change" happens. It remains to be seen whether the charging of Professor Patrick Harran in the death of Ms. Sheri Sangji will be a sufficient gun to the head to change academic chemistry. Somehow I doubt it. According to Paul, Jason Altom's suicide was an insufficient gun to the head of the Harvard chemistry department to institute any permanent change (although I'm guessing that depression in graduate students or postdocs is taken fairly seriously by smart faculty members.)
If enough people like Paul have faculty positions and attain high enough positions in academic chemistry, will things change? Probably. I think change from the bottom will be slow and painful, but has the best chance of becoming permanent.
There is, of course, the Langerman/Benderly approach to academic chemical safety: that funding and tenure be threatened in the case of bad safety records. I am on the record as seeing it as (at best) a useful bad idea. It's a Desert Eagle approach -- it will be interesting to see if it suffices.