Monday, June 23, 2014

ChemBark: Not enough punishment for Harran

Paul's post on the #SheriSangji case is incisive and says a lot of things that I want to say about the case. Here's the part that I find most relevant: 
The most important aspect of the Harran deal is how it extends the long, proud tradition of excusing PIs of any professional responsibility for their work. Society recognizes that professors are only supposed to have good things happen to them. We get the lion’s share of credit for papers, not the students or postdocs. We get the big salaries, not the students or postdocs. We get the awards, not the students or postdocs. On the flip side, professors must be protected from negative consequences at all costs. If an accident happens in one of our labs, that’s the students’ fault. If multiple papers from one of our labs contain fabricated data, that’s the students’ fault as well. Clearly, professors are not responsible for supervising their groups for integrity or safety. We know this because Dalibor Sames and Patrick Harran are still in charge of their labs. I applaud Columbia and UCLA for recognizing that you can’t discriminate against professors for trivial things like irresponsibility and incompetence. Anyway, it’s the competent professors you need to watch—lightning never strikes twice, right? 
Of course, I realize that there should be some consequences when something truly horrible happens. In these situations, professors must arrange for perfunctory punishments that allow all of the parties charged with oversight to save face. That’s what we saw here: UCLA threw some money at a scholarship in the victim’s name and at establishing a safety program it should have had in the first place. Personally, Harran was forced to donate money to the hospital where his student died. Incidentally, I think $10,000 was way too much; the man only earns $301,000 a year. How is he going to make ends meet with just $291,000? At least Harran’s lawyers were clever in how they disguised the 800 hours of community service as a major inconvenience instead of court-mandated preparation for the Broader Impacts section of Harran’s next NSF proposal. Killing two birds with one stone is exactly why good lawyers get paid the big bucks.
My post is going to be up later, but it's interesting to see what people are thinking so far.  


  1. I cannot imagine anyone joining this lab in the future (although people did continue to join Sames' lab). I wonder if UCLA will keep his salary at the current level?

    1. "I cannot imagine anyone joining this lab in the future "

      You'd be surprised at that. Prospective PhD candidates are also still lining up to work in Erick Carreira's lab. You would think these people have googled his name and become fully aware of what kind of PI he is, but no...

    2. Everyone thinks it won't happen to them. Same thing goes on with other sadists like Denmark at Illinois - after being a star student in undergrad, everyone who joins the group has heard the horror stories, but expects to impress him just like they did their undergrad professors. A lot of good chemists end up burning out, and not just mastering out but leaving science entirely.

    3. Why would anyone not join his lab? Hardly his fault that someone made a small mistake that was compounded by a beaker of pentane next to her leading to catastrophe. Anyone that takes responsibility for their own safety will have no problem working for him, because it was hardly his fault.

    4. I bet they do keep his salary at the same level or higher.

      If UCLA lowers his salary it would be an admission of guilt. He probably has the most secure job in his department.

  2. I am sorry, but that's just bullshit. They could have quartered Harran on live TV and it would not have changed a thing. The real issue is that it is profitable for universities to run unsafe labs with itinerant workforce and until they start to get slapped with billion dollar fines, they will do what's best for their bottom line.