Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How are other institutions reacting to the Harran settlement agreement?

As you might expect, the official statement from UCLA plays up the improvements in lab safety put into place in the wake of the accident and points to the creation of the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, which has been holding workshops and surveying lab workers on safety practices and attitudes. 
I’m afraid, however, judging from the immediate reaction I’ve seen at my own institution, that we have a long way to go. 
In particular, a number of science faculty (who are not chemists) seem to have been getting clear messages in the wake of “that UCLA prosecution” — they didn’t really know the details of the case, nor the names of the people involved — that our university would not be backing them up legally in the event of any safety mishap in the lab or the field. Basically, the rumblings from the higher administrative strata were: No matter how well you’ve prepared yourself, your students, your employees, no matter how many safety measures you’ve put into place, no matter what limitations you’re working with as far as equipment or facilities, if something goes wrong, it’s your [posterior]* on the line.
One of the very interesting aspects of the case is how vigorously UCLA and its entire administrative apparatus has defended Professor Harran. Nary a contrary leak nor a whispered rumor have made it into the press. But it isn't a surprise that other institutions are less excited about spending what must have been millions of dollars defending principal investigators from labor law violations. 

13 comments:

  1. Is there actually a PI left that isn't guilty of any labor law violations? You know, things like pushing PhD candidates and postdocs to work for 80+ hours a week while only paying them the minimum -or close to it- for 36, withholding vacation time, etc. etc.

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    1. As I said before, I dreamed that I was standing near a crowd of prosperous-looking angels, and a policeman took me by the wing and asked if I belonged with them.

      "Who are they?" I asked.

      "Why," said he, "they are the men who hired working-girls, and paid 'em five or six dollars a week to live on. Are you one of the bunch?"

      "Not on your immortality," said I. "I'm only the fellow that set fire to an orphan asylum, and murdered a blind man for his pennies."

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  2. UCLA only defended Harran because it was able to extricate itself from the case. If the state had not taken the blood money, UCLA lawyers would have totally make Harran a scapegoat.

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  3. Funny how the universities are so eager to take their cut of the grant money (overhead), yet begrudging the PI when the fit hits the shan. Maybe PI's will need to insist on liability insurance as part of their compensation package.

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  4. Actually, I was being deadly serious. Faculty bargaining units should start to seriously push administrations on this issue.

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    1. Great. More money drained into faculty salaries, while post-docs and grad students get dog chow. A continuation of the polarization between the haves (faculty, administrators) and have nots (people actually doing scientific research) in academic science.

      Let the faculty cover their own liability. They need to answer to the needs of the lab, not make excuses for being lazy.

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  5. Faculty liability insurance has been common for many years. It is not very expensive.

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  6. 1) I'd feel more sympathetic to professors if the "whatever they do" to ensure safety were much further in quantity or intent from nothing, and closer to what is expected in private business (well, big private businesses - I don't imagine T2's safety training was comprehensive).

    2) With some of the other professor/university kerfuffles (Holton at FSU, Pettit at ASU), I don't think professors really should be surprised if their universities would sell them up the river for a pack of cigarettes and matches. Liability insurance might be helpful (although 1) insurers might conduct their own checks and 2) insurance companies stay in business by avoiding paying out on claims).

    3) I wonder where the (rather large) overhead on grants is going if it's not for facilities and safety - you know, what the grants are supposed to be paying for? Putting the professors out to dry (and their students) because you've been spending grant money on assistants for the uni president seems par for the course, but could be embarrassing.

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    1. Universities won't hesitate to sell anyone up the river for any reason.

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  7. Making a scapegoat of Harran would be a disservice to everyone. He's simply a product and reflection of academic culture. For him to take the fall would exonerate the rest of academia, as though any of them are any different. Well, I've seen people doing some pretty crazy things. That would include the time I saw a senior level grad student working at his bench wearing a tank-top, mesh shorts, foam flip-flops and tiny little spectacles with no safety glasses. This whole Harran business is really par for the course from what I've seen.

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    1. I disagree. The fact that he's done little worse than the rest of academia is more reason to make an example of him, not less. Had the UC system revoked his tenure -- or, had the NIH / NSF / DOD refused him funding -- that would have been serious incentive for the professors around him to start paying attention to what goes on in their labs.

      Treating this as just another incident is a disservice to everyone. I've heard college students tell me their professors have cited Sangji's death as an example of something that can happen if a student is underprepared in lab. If Sangji is going to be defamed after her death, I feel it's only appropriate to turn Harran into an example of something that happens when a professor fails to properly ensure the safety of his staff.

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  8. " That would include the time I saw a senior level grad student working at his bench wearing a tank-top, mesh shorts, foam flip-flops and tiny little spectacles with no safety glasses."

    These kind of people would need to be babysitted the entire time. What PI has time for this?

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