Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why Dr. Naveen Sangji Should Be Talking To Congress

My thoughts on Dr. Naveen Sangji's comments at ACS Boston got long enough that I decided to write a separate post about it.

The silent ivory tower: First, she is absolutely right that the academic chemistry community has closed ranks. There have been few prominent chemists who have directly criticized either UCLA or Professor Harran. (From an online perspective, it's especially silent.) I don't run in academic circles anymore (not that I really ever did), so it's hard to say what kind of conversations about Prof. Harran's or UCLA's culpability have taken place during group meetings and the like.

New details on the incident: I'd like to hear more details that Prof. Harran asked her to perform the tBuLi syringing without the appropriate equipment (what equipment would that be? Certainly one could unpack a cannula and a graduate cylinder.) Personally, I think it's more likely that Prof. Harran asked her to do the syringe transfers and that he never thought that anything bad could have taken place.

Her interactions with the ACS Board: I am curious to hear about her interactions with the ACS Board of Directors to see if they'd make a public statement. How would someone even begin to pressure the board to act? E-mail? I can't imagine that they ever would have. They seem to shy away from that sort of controversy.

The policy proposal: Dr. Sangji believes that the ACS should advocate for the NIH to include an evaluation of a PI's safety record on funding proposals. While I agree that funding is certainly the only true coercive power that the NIH has over the universities, I repeat the same criticism of this potential policy that I have long made (when it was brought up by Beryl Benderly, back in 2009): How is it possible to accurately judge a PI's safety record? How do you get accurate data? How could you possibly avoid the inevitable sweeping under the rug of near-misses and actual safety incidents in order for professors, postdocs and students to continue to get funding? If I was a graduate student that had an accident and I knew that going to the emergency department for stitches meant that I'd be jeopardizing the future funding of my PI and my coworkers, I'd be sewing cuts up myself to avoid the potential damage to my career.

Apart from my policy critique, I believe that Dr. Sangji has a fundamental misunderstanding of the ACS and its relationship to the academic community. It's an organization that derives most of its Society-wide funding from ACS Publications, a publishing house which gets its work product, for free, in raw form from the academic community and then charges those same academics for access to its journals. Why would ACS ever decide to jeopardize this relationship over what is (in the ACS headquarters' eyes, I suspect) an internal employee safety dispute of its chief customer?

If there is one thing that I have learned over the past 6 years of watching the American Chemical Society attempt to deal with the mess that is chemist employment in the United States, it is this: it does not have tremendous power. While I wish that it held power over the chemical industry, it does not. While I wish it held power over academic chemistry, it does not. In fact, I would say that the only actual power it holds is its ability to extract revenue from universities via its subscriptions.*

To be sure, the ACS is an influential organization. However, how much sway does it have with NIH? Who does Francis Collins listen to more? ACS or the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology? Can anyone point to a single example in the last 10 years where the ACS has had any effect on governmental action at the state or federal level? (Maybe the federal Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act of 2015?)

Here's my suggestion for how Dr. Sangji could achieve her goals:
  • Influence Congress to pass a law mandating that graduate students are employees from an occupational safety perspective and 
  • Get federal OSHA to place academic laboratory safety as one of its top enforcement priorities.
Pressing her sister's memory on each and every member of the American Chemical Society is tremendously important from a cultural perspective, but in this nation of laws, it's Congress that holds the true power.

*And this power may be declining over time!


  1. Your last two bullets really caught my attention as someone hoping (perhaps naively) to move from industry to graduate school. There are misdeeds I hear about constantly in an academic setting that simple could not happen in an industrial one. You do something that severely jeopardizes the safety of a graduate student? Slap on the wrist, department sweeps it under the rug. You pull the same stunt in industry? Pack up your belongings by the end of the day.

    Employers, with real employees have a tangible incentive for protecting the well being of those employees. Or maybe it's more of a disincentive from allowing them harm. Either way, the affect is the same. Sure there are tragic industrial accidents. Take the DuPont Laporte incident as a recent example. But look at the fallout from it: a huge amount of negative PR, fines were levied, and people responsible (through happenstance or negligence) were fired. Of course that won't bring back the four who lost their lives. But the point is that even on under the worst case scenario, the mechanisms for corporate accountability more or less work.

    Meanwhile, Patrick Haran still has a lab. And that should be terrifying.

    Graduate students should absolutely be considered employees. If you're an academic PI, you don't get to have it both ways.

    1. You're correct, but PIs (and university administrators) have been having it both ways, and they'll continue to have it both ways because that's the foundation of academic research. Claiming graduate research assistants are "students" allows them to skirt all kinds of labor laws...not just safety...which keeps costs low. Why is that important? You'd have to ask the university presidents who make $1 million salaries.

    2. "Meanwhile, Patrick Haran still has a lab. And that should be terrifying."

      And government agencies seemingly have no problem giving him money to run it. Given the high number of other worthy applicants, I don't know whether that's more terrifying or insulting.

  2. Like in chemical manufacturing, zero near misses in the lab means that something is WRONG. Zero near misses are a problem. It means that no one is paying attention. The sooner that people realize this, the better.

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  3. The ACS prefers to stick with anodyne positions with broad support. Look at their policy platform:

    ACS has over 20 public policy statements that aim to

    Foster Innovation through Research & Technology.
    Strengthen Science Education & Scientific Workforce.
    Advance Science through Openness.
    Promote Science and Sustainability in Public Policy.

    Taking on an issue like workplace safety in graduate schools isn't something with the broad support necessary for them to get involved. Like much lobbying they're ability to move legislation is limited and generally only in the direct of prevailing political winds. Thinks like a research tax credit will get support because being on the winning side gives the appearance on influence and it's a genuine goal of the people who make up the society membership.

    Increased safety for graduate students is a niche issue with groups that have reason to oppose it. The bulleted ideas are good ones. One could conceivably be added as an amendment to a larger bill by a representative or senator who was interested. Influencing one or two officer holders to add an amendment is easier than trying to get a whole bill on the issue. The other would require lobbying in the executive branch but would also probably be more manageable than trying to get the attention of all of congress.

  4. My postdoc institution was extremely particular about us wearing lab coats all the time in lab. During the safety training they specifically used Sheri Sangji as an example of the horrors of things going wrong when you don't use PPE. Then they handed me my 60% polyester lab coat. Laboratory safety at academic institutions is theater. And as much as industry scientists like to shout about how we're so much more responsible because there's real consequences if we're found culpable for misdeeds, I've still never worked for a company that supplied me a 100% cotton lab coat, so take that for what you will. People aren't trying to understand how to be safe, they're looking for boxes to check so they can't get sued. Things won't genuinely improve until we shift that mindset. I don't know if changes at the NIH or Congressional level will alter that, but I also don't have a better solution.

    1. Polyester is often treated to be flame retardant. That lab coat is likely safer than the cotton one you'd like.

    2. If it's FR, it is usually marked as such.

    3. PPE needs to be on a case by case basis. Don't just automatically reach for the nitrile gloves or the lab coat or...

      There was one time I had on 10 pieces off PPE, andthat just didn't happen by accident: it was all resulting from a pre-experiment safety review.

    4. That's exactly my point John. If Sheri's death teaches us anything it's that we need to pay attention to what we're using on an individual basis and take proper precautions. But that message hasn't been the one that people advance, it's just become another box to check.

      "Lab coat? Check. Doesn't matter that you're working with a pyrophoric and we've provided a coat that will ignite just like Sheri's sweater. We gave you a coat, so we're all done here."

  5. I think her proposal about linking NIH funding to safety is great, but just needs to be tweaked.
    For rDNA the NIH has linked biosafety with institutional funding, so I can see a similar system with chemical safety. The NIH would have to come up with some basic safety guidelines such as proper PPE, sufficient training, and working engineering controls, all oversaw by a institutional committee comprised of faculty, administrators, EH&S, and even possibly community members. The institution would then have to report non-compliance to NIH and face possible cutting of all NIH funds. This could give EH&S personnel some actual leverage when dealing with PIs, and if a PI is threatening the entire institution's NIH funding then they wouldn't be defended so adamantly.
    Does anyone have Dr. Sangji's contact information? I'd like to offer her some assistance with her proposal.

  6. The trend today is toward less regulation. No nanny state, no job-killing laws, no socialistic, progressive programs. You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Just ask Rush and Sean.

    1. One may note that evil old money-grubbing industry is safe and held accountable for their actions, while for-the-greater-good altruistic academia is the one where you can kill an underling, have the others clean up the evidence, and still get 'killer' scores on your next grant.

    2. The ACA has generated over 10,000 pages of regulations, and you call that "less regulation?"

    3. Perhaps he's referring to the political atmosphere. Every regulation is job killing or job destroying or warring on coal. Maybe he watches too much fox news.

    4. The administration is going after coal - and its supporters (e.g. Soros) are buying up coal stocks at fire sale prices.

      All the "clean energy" initiatives are going to do is raise energy costs, and increase taxes for subsidy of "green energy" and manufacturing in China, while failing to do anything environmentally sound. It's doubling down on a policy already known to have failed.

      Think about this when your heating and electricity bills go up 150% next winter, and you have even less money to pay them.

  7. CJ wrote "it does not have tremendous power" (in reference to the ACS).

    I disagree with that statement. The ACS does, indeed have a lot of power, it is just a question of where it is being directed. For example, with much enthusiasm the ACS filed suit against Google Scholar to defend its income stream. Instead, why not hire labor lawyers to petition congress to direct policies supporting the employment of doctoral level scientists? Overall, the policies of the organization more closely resemble that of a corporation, instead of a non-profit organization.

    It is an important connection that by maintaining the status quo of heralding research that depends on graduate students on a pyramid scheme, ACS, Inc. is supporting the basis of its revenue stream.

    As long as the domestic members of the organization lack spine enough to do something about it, this practice will continue.

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