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.
*And this power may be declining over time!