Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Prof. Patrick Harran selected as AAAS fellow

Via Twitter and C&EN's Jyllian Kemsley, an interesting piece of news (here reported by UCLA's press office): 
A total of 347 scholars were selected this year; they will be honored Feb. 13, 2016, at the AAAS annual meeting in Washington, D.C. UCLA’s new fellows are: 
Patrick Harran 
Harran, UCLA’s Donald J. and Jane M. Cram Professor of Organic Chemistry, builds new chemical compounds in creative ways and uses those molecules to drive research in biology and medicine...
Over at The Safety Zone, Jyllian notes the Daily Bruin's reporting comments from AAAS' press office:
Ginger Pinholster, AAAS director in the office of public programs, said the AAAS fellow selection process is based strictly on scientific achievement. 
“(Selection as a fellow) doesn’t reflect behavior or other issues,” Pinholster said. 
Pinholster added the AAAS administrative members who oversaw the selection process for the fellowship were unaware of the charges against Harran.
I don't really buy the "we didn't know" defense, although stranger things have happened before. I think they simply judged it as "not relevant", which is... interesting, disappointing and a good demonstration of the hierarchies at work in academic science. Younger folks, take note.

(It would be interesting to know about the past and present of AAAS fellows; I presume there is the normal distribution of human failings spread amongst them.)

UPDATE: Courtesy of Jyllian Kemsley, the Sangji family responds, calling for the revoking of the fellowship. "We respectfully request that you refuse to honor the unsafe science conducted by an unethical scientist."

UPDATE 2 (201512110357p): AAAS director of the Office of Public Programs Ginger Pinholster tweets that there will be a statement on the Harran/AAAS fellowship next week.

60 comments:

  1. Call me the Devil's advocate if you must, but Harran went to trial and was punished accordingly. It is not our place to continue passing judgement on him, for an accident that occurred in his laboratory seven years ago.

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    1. "Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names."

      The point of passing judgement and remembering Sangji's death and its contributors is so it doesn't happen again (or more rarely). If all being negligent enough in safety to have someone killed in your lab gets you is laud and honor then there's going to be a lot of dead researchers. While that might solve some employment issues, it would probably be a Bad Thing.

      The quote from Red Rabbit "The church is big on forgiveness, but you have to go to confession first." is probably relevant, though legal systems and conscience don't always play well with one another.

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    2. Harran did not go to trial--he had a preliminary hearing and eventually reached a settlement agreement with the district attorney. He is subject to the terms of that agreement for another four years before the district attorney will ask a judge to dismiss the charges.

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    3. Hi Jyllian, my mistake (I am 4:05pm) - thank you for clearing it up. There is enough misconception about this saga going around for me to add to it. I previously understood the award to be based on scientific achievement alone. Harran is by all accounts an excellent chemist, however as others have pointed out, on the basis of services to science as a whole, there are surely many other deserving candidates who are not so clearly tarnished.

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    4. I am, perhaps, more cynical than most, but there are far more brilliant chemists than there are high-ranking tenure-track professorships. Harran's achievements notwithstanding, he is profoundly expendable, and the field of chemistry would have done well to let him hang.

      His failure would have, hopefully, been a lesson to us all. This is also a lesson, but not one I would like professors to take to heart.

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  2. If it was an accident that came as a result of his negligence (neither confirmed or denied by the settlement), then that should affect his candidacy. The AAAS's mission is not limited to scientific merit, as Ash points out (linked in my handle).

    This is one of the highest honors the AAAS can grant. They should be selective, and they should have enough candidates to choose from without this kind of baggage.

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  3. Good. A student fucking up should not affect his career.

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    1. Good, Sheri Sangji wasn't a student.

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  4. Is Harran really that great of a chemist? Has he had some great achievement that merits being selected by the AAAS?

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    1. Diazonamide A was really good work - he almost punked Nicolaou (if the structure had been correctly assigned, and almost got him anyway after reassigning the structure), probably working with significantly fewer people.

      Maybe the chemists in the AAAS figured that "But for the grace of (deity) go I." and so were much more sympathetic to Harran than to the redshirts who work for him (and them). That is the problem in general with graduate education in chemistry - the situation is advisor-dependent, but in general graduate education doesn't seem to (consistently) value the interests of the people (students) for whose interests it is supposedly constituted.

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    2. His group made diazonamide A and almost punked Nicolaou's group in doing so (they made the original structure, found it wanting, reassigned the structure, and nearly beat Nicolaou to that one) despite having (likely) fewer people to do it. That was pretty good.

      I think some of the chemistry people may have decided that "But for the grace of (deity) go I" and decided that Harran was worthy of added sympathy (rather than the redshirts who work for him, and them). It depends on the advisor (because some care), but graduate education in chemistry seems to have little concern for the students (either their safety, or their integrity, or their prospects) who are nominally its reason for existing.

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    3. Being first to synthesize something half a dozen others have done really highlights how unnecessary his work is.

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    4. Well, a lot of people have done really good work.

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  5. "Pinholster added the AAAS administrative members who oversaw the selection process for the fellowship were unaware of the charges against Harran."

    What about those who nominated him for the fellowship? Can they plead ignorance too?

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  6. My own father is/was an extremely well-known scientist in his own field, and it would be safe to say that his achievements are well-known to every reader of this blog, and likely throughout the world. For better or worse; he is/was just my father. I asked him once why he never become a member of the AAAS. His answer: "too much politics".

    Hopefully, the trolls here will take this at face value.

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  7. And I thought it was bad enough to have a brother that went to more famous schools and a better publication record than me (eg brother; review article in Ann Rev Biochem, me: Reiew article in Thrombosis and Haemostasis).

    A father? That would be tough to live up to, if you felt compelled to do so.

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  8. Can you imagine how would twitterverse react to this announcement if he had said (god forbid) something sexist?

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    1. I said a long time ago that he would have gotten in more trouble if he had made a pass at her than killed her.

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    2. There is no bread or new followers for feminists in this tragedy of course. So sad.

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    3. And to reply to the irrelevant statements made by Anonymous 7:33 and or bad wolf is to be dragged angrily into a comment battle. To disagree with them here is counterproductive and playing into the fight that someone is intending to pick. Perhaps best just to scroll past it, Anon 10:11?

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    4. I guess what I should have said is that, at least he would have gotten in some trouble, since there are definitive laws about harrassment but this ended up in a grey zone where no unions, student agreements or worker's rights seemed to apply.

      But thanks for the hypocritical critique anyway, ass!

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    5. Well, thank you for clarifying.

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    6. Okay, I think I see what your original assumption was, so sorry for the name-calling. Man talking about this guy always gets me torqued up.

      It's a little like the football teams that hire Michael Vick. I know he served his time but i do not want to ever hear from the guy again.

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    7. I can tell and you're absolutely right. It gets me torqued up, too. I think we're all stunned.

      (No worries on the name calling. I've been called worse ;-)

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    8. @bad wolf - I don't think this particular case was in a gray zone. Sangji was not a student, she was a staff researcher. Consequently, any law that would apply to an employer-employee situation applied to her.

      If she had been a student, yes, the legalities could have been murkier.

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    9. He likely would have lost his job.

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    10. @Jyllian--far be it from me to argue with the expert, but that's not entirely satisfactory, as non-essential staff at UCLA are off between Christmas and New Years.

      Perhaps leaving the definition to what is "essential" up to the profs is part of the mismanagement i see in the situation. Using pyrophoric compounds in an understaffed building to generate a commercially available reagent?

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    11. Vinyllithium is commercially available?

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    12. Wasn't it? I remember looking at the time and could find it; now, not so much.

      At the risk of moving goalposts, Vinyl Grignard is at Sigma-Aldrich, and IIRC the reaction was a straightforward addition to an aldehyde. So perhaps the point was either to be cheap or to boost the yield, neither of which is going to impress anyone at this stage.

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    13. I agree that it is ignominious that Sheri Sangji died (partially) because a 10% lower yield was apparently not acceptable.

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    14. the quality of vinyl and allyl Grignards from Aldrich is atrocious - it is mostly dark crap. You are better off making your own. Also, Sheri Sangji did not die for better yield - she died because of her lousy lab techniques and not using lab coat. She had no qualification doing what she was trying to do, with a notorious pyrophorics, in a 50mL big plastic syringe, unsupervised - and for that I don't blame her, that she was trying to please the boss.

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    15. the quality of vinyl and allyl Grignards from Aldrich is atrocious - it is mostly dark crap. You are better off making your own. Also, Sheri Sangji did not die for better yield - she died because of her lousy lab techniques and not using lab coat. She had no qualification doing what she was trying to do, with a notorious pyrophorics, in a 50mL big plastic syringe, unsupervised - and for that I don't blame her, that she was trying to please the boss.

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    16. @milkshake--we seem to be looking at this from different angles, but my training is that PPE is the last line of defense; experimental design is closer to the first. If safety was considered in reaction choice even as often as abstract goals like 'atom economy' I'd be happier.

      @CJ--agreed; it is weird to me that we accept this as a big part of the dick-measuring contest that is modern total synthesis, especially since that is the easiest part to fake.

      Big PI:"What yield did you get?"
      Postdoc:"70%"
      Big PI:".... a good postdoc could get 80%."
      (Next week)
      Big PI:"What yield did you get?"
      Postdoc (looking warily around)"ummm... eighty... one?"
      Big PI:"Excellent."

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    17. @bad wolf--When I asked the head of EH&S at UCLA in 2009 about the winter holiday closure, he said that the closure was for administrative offices and that UCLA expects research labs to be open 365 days per year.

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  9. Congratulations to Prof. Harran! As someone who actually worked with him I can tell you that not only is his science worthy of such recognition, but no one has advanced the need for chemical safety more than him and Ms. Sangji. The loss of Ms. Sangji's life was extremely tragic and I cannot imagine how traumatic it is for her friends and family. However, Prof. Harran has entered into a settlement and is fully compliant with the agreement. All the while he continues to do great science proving that safety does not have to come at the cost of productivity.

    Prof. Harran has acknowledged responsibility and taken more steps than any other professor to make sure it never happens again. To those who are still up in arms over their perceived "injustice", I suggest you never go outside and actually experience real injustice. Please move along and figure out ways that we can improve laboratory safety that doesn't involve a professor being thrown in jail and fired.

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    1. I guess getting burned alive in your lab because of inadequate training and safety equipment and preparations isn't unjust. I have to admit, that's a ...perspective...I hadn't really considered.

      I think a lot of people figured throwing Harran in jail wouldn't help, because it wouldn't convince advisors to take their students' safety into account if they didn't care to. If nothing else works, though, "pour encourager les autres" has been an effective tactic in times past, and it's pretty close to that point (when safety in industry is the standard, you know academic safety has to be pretty bad).

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    2. Translation: "As someone who" depends on him for a letter and a killer's letter isn't worth the paper it's printed on; it seems more than one of you need to keep him propped up for your own purposes.

      Apparently holding up a trial for several years and weaseling himself into a settlement covered by the UC system is a different definition of "acknowledged responsibility" than the one i'm familiar with.

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    3. Oh come on, how many PIs do you know actually train their students? Also what about UCLA's responsibility to train her and Prof. Harran? They failed in this aspect and were subject to a criminal charges until they settled. In academia, we rely on the senior students to train the younger ones. Despite her successful use of t-butyl lithium a couple months before and her titration of it that day she obviously needed to still be supervised. Do you honestly think that 90% of PIs would supervise a B.S. chemist in the lab or would they expect one of their postdoc/ senior grad students watch them? Her selection of a syringe instead of the cannula she had previously used despite almost tripling the volume is indicative of an inexperienced chemist and poor judgement.

      Prof. Harran of course is partially responsible and has agreed to a settlement which the LA District Attorney and judge (doubled the hours of nonteaching community service) determined were appropriate for his involvement. If you are not happy with the settlement then you should contact the DA and judge. And yes the trial kept getting delayed as is our court system. Again your complaint is not with Prof. Harran, but rather our courts. Feel free to contact your representative to voice your discontent instead of spewing ignorance and hatred towards a man you never met. Imagine how difficult the whole experience has been for him. I guarantee he regrets not doing more every single day and is taking concrete steps to making sure it doesn't happen to anyone again.

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    4. I think the lack of training is the point. I wouldn't have expected Harran to be in the lab training students, but if you work with hazardous things (or things with unknown hazards) and don't have any sort of training (or the perfunctory training most often given), one can safely assume you don't care. (UCLA also ought to shoulder blame - they can't say they didn't know what they hired him to do, and what they accepted grad students to do, and yet they didn't have a whole lot of safety training in place, either, and some of the overhead money they took was paying for precisely that.)

      The analogy to drunk driving might be apt. Ruining someone's life for killing someone while driving drunk won't bring back the people killed, but it might send enough notice to people that they should take appropriate care. Right now, we seem to be in the "Why does it matter?" era of lab safety in academia.

      The other bother is that it's the student/coworker's fault when they screw up, but the professor's glory when they succeed. Whether it's fraud or personal injury, the same song keeps getting played. I can't imagine why anyone'd be peeved hearing it.

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    5. As I mentioned in my post, this is not really about Prof. Harran; it's about the AAAS's responsibility to the wider world. I would find the nomination questionable even in the face of Prof. Harran's efforts to improve lab safety and the good scientific work he might be doing. He probably does deserve recognition for his synthetic accomplishments, but the AAAS nomination should recognize much broader achievements. I would have been far less miffed if he had received the Tetrahedron Prize for Creativity in Organic Synthesis.

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    6. Bottom line is he was charged and the legal system punished him. I'm sorry it doesn't fit your idea of justice, but the LA District Attorney is an elected official. Again bring it up with them. If you think his settlement terms are such a walk in the park then I think it would be wonderful if you volunteer significant time to outreach programs and burn units. While you are volunteering all of your free time remember how you aren't running a world class research team and being reminded everyday that if you slip up you will face 4.5 years in jail.

      The stress compounded with the guilt is more punishment for Harran than most that read this blog want to acknowledge. I know that even though he didn't go to jail, professors are aware that they can be criminally liable for the death of their researchers. Also most PIs aren't at an UCLA caliber school that have the resources to hire Tom O'Brien. As such wise PIs take steps to avoid the stress of going to court and being made an example of, but more can be done to improve safety in academic labs. Sticks aren't the best or only way to get people to follow safety rules. I'm proud that I am actually one that actively works in improving chemical safety instead of participating in armchair safety on blogs.

      As for him being elected as an AAAS fellow, perhaps it would be more appropriate if it was awarded after he fully satisfied his settlement agreement. I believe that he made a mistake and has taken steps to make amends for his errors and negligence. As such he should not be disqualified from prestigious awards for an accident that happened 7 years ago.

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    7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    8. I will not accept implicit threats of destruction of property on the blog.

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    9. 1) As opposed to armchair defense of negligent homicide? I think I'll take the armchair blogging on lab safety, thanks. (Also note, as said before, that if your safety training and apparatus can be reasonably and factually questioned by bloggers, you did something wrong.)

      2) I don't think people whose people get killed by drunk drivers cease to feel pain when the drivers gets sentenced. The people are still gone, the penalty is unlikely to be proportionate (because the just penalty is likely to be short because of the lack of intent, but the duration that other people pay the cost is long), and in some cases, it doesn't seem as if people have learned anything. The law is a preferable replacement to revenge, but it doesn't make the consequences of someone's actions disappear.

      I think if winning means all - if the means justify the ends - that you're going to get a lot of bad with the good of academic knowledge. The award seems to mean that the AAAS agrees with that position. Not sure why you'd think the people they designated redshirts for the advancement of science would be accepting of that position.

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    10. First for your drunk driving analogy to be more accurate, Prof. Harran would be the bartender, UCLA is the bar, and Ms. Sangji would be the driver. There are laws that place a responsibility on the bartender and bar to cut drunks off and get them cabs. When they fail to met those responsibilities they can face criminal and civil suits. Harran didn't actively do anything that caused the fire, however it was his inaction that started the course of events.

      Finally, Harran never faced homicide, manslaughter, or anything similar to those crimes for his actions. He was charged with willful violation of state labor laws. I doubt that the DA ever wasted a breath on possibly charging him with anything more. Based on your comments, I'm not sure you understand that. Can we please just stop focusing all this anger and vitriol on one professor, but instead look for ways to improve the systems that lead to the tragic death of a young woman? I know you think that Prof. Harran being punished much worse than he already has would improve the system, but I like to look at a bigger picture and I feel that any example that Prof. Harran could be made of has been effectively made.

      Thank you for the discussion and while I disagree with your point of view I understand and respect it. Have a great and safe weekend!

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    11. I don't think the analogy to Harran as the bartender is accurate - Sangji was his employee, but had she been a student, in either case, she would have been acting under his supervision and with significant input from him (had papers resulted from the work, he would have been the main author and thus credited by others with significant contributions, probably the most significant contributions), while a bartender has no say in or benefit from the actions of his clients (other than that he/she has a basic responsibility to make sure that they aren't visibly drunk when he serves them).

      As I said, I don't know that jailing Harran would have done much for lab safety in general. It seems like there is a lack of regard by professors in general (though some are better and some are worse) for the well-being of their students and co-workers, which the award partly seems to indicate and which needs to change in general before safety in academic labs improves. There are better ways to ensure that research is done more safely (as in industry, which does some of the same research), but they won't be followed unless someone cares (and cares enough to pay for it). I'm not sure that this (commentary) will make anyone with the ability to anything care other than to make people aware that it might be a problem. Wish you well.

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    12. Hi bad wolf,

      How did you identify the author of the suspiciously flattering contribution in this thread?

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    13. Eh, just knew that at least one subsequent postdoc had recently placed at an R1, and why else would someone be so interested in rehabilitating Harran's image than someone whose reference letter depends on him? Uno mano lava la otra, as they say in LA.

      The lab's postdocs are another issue entirely--the biggest f-up in the chain of deadly events was apparently one of the other postdocs (who was supposed to train SS) was in a rush to get out to go to a new job, and either did a half-assed job or had himself incredibly bad technique (the plastic syringe) that he passed along. Second was the other postdocs at the scene were in another room, had not been trained in safety and apparently spoke English so poorly that it disrupted the 911 call. Weird, huh?

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    14. Always fascinating when people from groups that have a PI who is disturbingly aloof from the details of the research going on their lab end up with academic positions. This includes not only bad safety practices, but also falsified data. You would think with all the competition that you wouldn't need to pick people who are informed from the worst chemical atmospheres.

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    15. As I've commented elsewhere on these pages, my choosing a research director who has minimal contact and no commitment to his graduate students was -hindsight being 20/20- a major error on my own part. Depending on the local culture, you may only learn this from the inside.

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  10. All that aside, Wavefunction has a point that this is rehashing old points, and the issue is with the AAAS. Harran has blood on his hands and now the AAAS, like his supporters, have it as well.

    The idea that somehow his research in particular is so special that it is worth the cost in human life it has taken is staggering in its devaluation of human life, particularly chemical researcher life. It is also a slap in the face to everyone in industry working for no recognition but maintaining safe working conditions.

    That he has continued to seek acclaim and grants and the AAAS and NIH (through his R01) are on board with that is sickening. As for LA and its prosecutors, I'm old enough to remember the OJ trial and so there wasn't exactly any respect there to be lost in the first place.

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  11. I sent an email yesterday to Gail Pinholster, the public relations officer at AAAS, who has made the statement that members of the chemistry nominating committee were not aware of the Sheri Sangji incident. I told her this was hard to believe, and included the list of articles from the print and online versions of Science journal. She did respond quickly and to paraphrase said the matter is being looked into. {Her email address is easily found on the AAAS site}.

    I’ve also found the list of the members of the Chemistry section at AAAS, which also includes those on the nominating committee: http://www.aaas.org/Section-C.
    I’m going to send each of them an email, expressing my dismay at Harran receiving this honor while he is still under court order to fulfill community service obligations in order to have the felony workplace safety charges dropped.

    At this point, it is highly unlikely that the Harran’s fellow status will be revoked, but it is still important that the AAAS Chemistry section members hear from those who have an opinion about the matter, both positive and negative.

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  12. I'm anonymous from above - the AAAS public relations officer is 'Ginger Pinholster', and not Gail. My apologies.

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  13. Is Harran really such a great scientist? While I'm not an expert on his work, I bet he is dispensible just like most academics. There's a lot of competition to get a position, but once you have it, a lot of your would be competitors are decimated based on the opinions of a small minority, most of whom are not better than mediocre.

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  14. Quite by accident this evening, I came across the following articles, which are somewhat long and not absolutely current. But their authors make a very honest, if not cynical analysis of the role of honesty and prestige in science. According to the authors, "cheating" is a slippery gradient, the slope of which depends on who you are. The authors give a number of specific examples, sometimes admittedly changing the names of the guilty parties, in order to protect themselves from liable suits.

    One conclusion from those articles would be that the AAAS likely not only knew about Harran's role in Ms. Sangji's death, they continue to purposefully ignore it to this day. The authors of the articles would furthermore claim that it would not be in the interest of UCLA's reputation to see a star faculty member thrown in jail. Finally, anyone who repeatedly attempts to bring it to the attention attention of either AAAS or UCLA may also have to deal with severe repercussions on their own career.

    Here are the articles:
    http://www.uow.edu.au/~bmartin/pubs/92prom.html
    http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/onepage/conduct.html

    I've never met Harran, and frankly his work is not in my area. The preceding is not a comment on him, per se, but a major sickness within an entire system where the professional satisfaction and achievement is determined by competing for money from an ever-diminishing pot. And doing so with a polished smile. I used to look down on non-scientists who went about acquiring money and fame in a more direct manner. Now, however I'm asking myself if there are not close parallels between the two tribes.

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  15. It should be pointed out that AAAS Fellow (American Association for the Advancement of Science as opposed to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences) designation is not particularly selective. There would be no reason why the selection committee would have taken the time to discuss anything other than the application materials.

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  16. In the past, I've been uncomfortable assessing blame in this case since I know neither of the principals nor any of the details with respect to how they interacted. This said, surely the AAAS could have found someone equally or more worthy who doesn't have these sorts of allegations on his/her record. That the AAAS is claiming that it was completely unaware of the accident is complete BS, and I'm glad that I decided against becoming an AAAS member.

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  17. Any response from Ginger Pinholster?

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    1. Only that it is not ready yet: https://twitter.com/jkemsley/status/676526636385308672

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    2. The statement: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2015/12/patrick-harrans-nomination-as-aaas.html

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