Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Day 5 of the #SheriSangji preliminary hearing; hearing on potential trial on Feb. 15, 2013

Drs. Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice of C&EN have posted their summary of Day 5 of the preliminary hearing of Professor Patrick Harran on charges stemming from the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji in January 2009. It should be noted that a preliminary hearing is a determination of the quality of the prosecution's evidence in the case. Day 6 happened yesterday; a link to C&EN's write-up will be posted when it is up.

Biggest news first: preliminary hearings are done, and and a hearing before Judge Lisa Lench on whether or not a trial will proceed will be argued on February 15, 2013.

The defense has raised two basic objections in Day 5 of the testimony, which focused on Cal/OSHA investigator Brian Baudendistel and his cross-examination by Thomas O'Brien, the lead counsel for the Harran defense team:
  • Ms. Sangji was an experienced chemist, and therefore knowledgeable enough to make chemical safety PPE choices on her own
  • Professor Harran was not fully informed of his responsibilities/liability as an employer with respect to chemical safety. 
It seems to me that the latter is less objectionable than the former, which to be blunt, I find to be a pernicious myth. Now, of course, all the legal relationships between institution, PI, student and technician/employee are going to be formalized and codified. Where Professor Harran is in this previously gray area is basically the crux of any criminal penalty going forward.

In other news, the Los Angeles Times has indicated that the Baudendistel gambit by the Harran defense to remove his testimony does not seem to have worked for now. Jyllian Kemsley also thinks that it's been tabled. Finally, I should also point out the rather cynical ploy by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in the AP wire report (assuming, of course, that the reporter got it right):
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block issued a statement praising Harran as a valued member of UCLA's faculty who is making great strides in the global effort to cure cancer.
It's funny how there are positive and negative ways to cast the nature of the research Ms. Sangji was doing at Professor Harran's direction. Sometimes, her research is referred to as work on a "diet drug", but at other times, Professor Harran is a cancer researcher. The answer is that Professor Harran was working on both anti-obesity and anti-cancer compounds; the ultimate goal of his (worthy, good) research is irrelevant to these legal proceedings. Assuming again that he was quoted correctly, Chancellor Block should ashamed at this blatant attempt to pee in the jury pool.

There's a lot more detail in Jyllian and Michael's post, so you should definitely go over there and read it.

17 comments:

  1. Chancellor Block, you name me one person whose life has been saved by Professor Harran. Because i can name you at least one that's been ended by him.

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    1. This is the kind of attitude that makes me want to root for Harran.

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  2. You forgot the 3rd leg of the defense that Harran's work is too hard for investigators to understand or something. Yeah, I have no idea where they're going with that one.

    I find the two arguments above very weirdly contradictory. Sangji is super-experienced and Harran is not trained enough. Are they going to argue Sangji should have been supervising Harran?

    The strongest defense, IMO, is the one about UCLA's responsibility to make sure Harran is trained. I think that is a gray area and this is probably why safety has gotten the short shrift in academia. Both the professors and the university are pointing at each other and saying it's their responsibility. When everyone's in charge, no one is. And it shows.

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    1. "When everyone's in charge, no one is."

      +1

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    2. As far as I understand, the argument, and a totally valid argument at that, is that she'd been around long enough to know to wear a lab coat.

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    3. Would a lab coat have changed the way the experiment was conducted and supervised? If she HAD worn a lab coat, would you then agree that the incorrect procedure was due to poor training and supervision?

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  3. There's also the "individual responsibility" defense, in which they seek to establish that the deceased had access to a lab coat and chose not to wear it.

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    1. Just keep beating that drum, Anonymous. It's made from the burned skin of human beings.

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    2. BW - that's BS, I've been around academic researchers for more than 10 years by now. It is totally their decision to willfully ignore every safety rule known to man on daily and hourly basis. They are warned time and again, but they simply don't give a shit.

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    3. No, that's fair enough (and believe me i've seen them too)--but in this case simply regurgitates the "she was a highly experienced professional" line that anyone past their second year of grad school should see as the purest of BS.

      How does Harran (a "martyr" by some comments) get more sympathy than a dead subordinate? By tarring the victim, changing the subject, and confusing the issue. So congratulations, somedude. You seem very sympathetic indeed to a wealthy tenured faculty member of a top school who accepts no responsibility for the actions of his employees.

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    4. I don't think we are talking about the same thing. The argument is not that she was a highly experienced chemist, that's laughable, given the boneheaded way the reaction was set up, no the argument is that she was "knowledgeable enough to make chemical safety PPE choices on her own" as in "don't wear synthetics", "wear lab coat", "don't work alone", "jump under the shower" - all the stuff that's being drilled into students starting from freshman Gen. Chem. Lab.
      Why Harran gets my sympathy? Because he is being made personally responsible for an institutional failure, while the institution itself has bribed its way out of the prosecution.

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    5. I'm not sure burned human skin would make that good of a drumhead.

      Your first comment on this post is so poorly grounded in reality that I'm expecting my computer to short-circuit just from reading it. Whether Harran was negligent in a manner that allowed Sangji's self-immolation is a matter of fact for a jury to decide. That can only happen if the result of this hearing is that there is sufficient evidence to even have a trial, at which point we can have a fun discussion about the true meaning of the 6th amendment. Stop putting the cart before the dead horse you're beating.

      I was just trying to start a discussion on what can be factually established in a legal setting. I guess I picked the wrong comment section.

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    6. "I was just trying to start a discussion on what can be factually established in a legal setting."

      Anon, if you'd like the floor, you're more than welcome to e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com and I'll give you your own post. It's my intention to feature contrary opinions on the Harran prosecution, especially when the legal precedents (not moral, not ethical) are not crystal clear to me.

      But don't give me this "I was just trying to start a discussion" business -- that's a cheap play.

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  4. If I were in industry, though, the same personal choice for PPE would apply - however, it would generally be a choice between having a job and a paycheck and not wearing PPE. The employer would probably be held responsible for any accidents, and so....

    The argument for personal responsibility seems disingenuous in that universities treat researchers as students when it comes to pay and benefits, with the consequent assumption that they are not yet capable, need to be taught, and so should not be paid as workers. On the other hand, when issues of safety arise, they are treated as fully capable laboratory workers, with sole responsibility for their own safety. These two sets of actions on the part of universities appear to be inconsistent. Universities are very good at being inconsistent when it benefits them financially, but courts or people with operating logic circuits are not required to honor their lack of consistency. (Researchers do not always know the hazards of what they do, and that is more likely true of exploratory research, but industry still (for now) has R+D - their safety rules anticipate the handling of substances with unknown hazards.)

    I have not so much sympathy for Harran, for some of the same reasons. Where I went to school, professors pretty much ran their groups like fiefdoms. If they have substantive control over the behavior of their group (and they do), then they also ought to be responsible (in part) for what goes on there (and if they get the credit for it when it goes well). Sooner or later, the COs need to start paying a price for their failures in training their people. He should be held personally responsible, though he should not bear all the blame.

    I would have preferred to make a point of the Texas Tech "idiot(s) with explosives" case because the safety failures were much more clearly local and were in stark contrast to academia's best practices in that field, much less that of related industry research.

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    1. ...and that's what this day's proceedings were all about--minimizing Harran's personal responsibility due to the nebulous safety regulations/lack thereof at UCLA and maximizing the deceased's personal responsibility due to having had safety training at multiple different places, access to PPE, job description from HR documents, etc. This was probably the most interesting and important day of the hearing!

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    2. In most places in industry, though, safety rules aren’t left up to personal discretion. They probably should not have been left up to Harran’s discretion, either (that’s where UCLA should be taking more blame).

      The problem with prior experience and job role having a controlling role in assigning responsibility is that academic labs have rather heterogeneous populations doing things that are likely to behave unpredictably. People in academic labs have a variety of backgrounds, and so lab safety in academic groups can’t be controlled well by personal experience and knowledge because they differ so much between people. If safety matters at all, the policies need to be consistent within labs, where knowledge of the common hazards is likely to be known and where people’s behavior can be more readily controlled by an advisor. Universities have people with lots of different types of research, and safety rules for laser labs and BL-2 labs need to emphasize different risks and behaviors; making safety rules at the university level doesn’t make as much sense.

      No one in a lab is likely to have more knowledge of reactivity and safety than the professor. Given the level of control advisors are likely to have in their labs (since they control their students’ futures, more or less), they are the ones both qualified and capable of teaching safety and of making it important. The university needs to manage safety, but the job of teaching it is the advisor’s. Hazards caused by deficiencies in teaching are his responsibility, and safety is pretty important (synthetic procedures don’t work if your product is splattered across three time zones and mixed with your blood) to being a chemist.

      Ultimately, professors get the lion’s share of credit for their successes. When something goes wrong (and in both this case and in that of Texas Tech, due to a lack of concern), why should they not receive a proportionate level of responsibility?

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    3. The Texas Tech guy is a good example. Since he was a 4th or 5th year i have much less sympathy for him than Ms Shangji (even if he had killed himself); but since the PI didn't seem to notice or care how the lab safety culture had devolved i'd still have to give her some semi-equal portion of blame.

      So roughly a sliding scale of PI 95%/new student 5% ---> PI 50% / experienced student 50%.

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