Thursday, October 27, 2011

Would better training and more oversight help with academic chemical safety?

The university, funder and regulation slices are too big. (Credit: USCSB)
Hi, STEM_Wonk: 

I'm really appreciative that you took a really thorough look at the PI's role in creating a safe environment. Considering that of all the interactions posted in CSB's report (and their Swiss cheese analysis), the PI is the one who the student spends the most time with, it's well within reason to really carefully at them. 

Let's take your questions/points in reverse order:

Are you too harsh on PIs? I don't know -- I don't think so. They have unusual power over their students -- seems to me they should have unusual levels of responsibility for them, especially when they're so young and inexperienced. 

What do I glean from section 8.2 of the report? Boy, it sounds like DHS is just leaning on the university to lean on the faculty ('Faculty oversees student researchers', 'Research safety education and training to develop a culture of safety are provided', 'Independent review by subject matter experts of the safety protocols and practices is conducted.') I guess that means the PIs, but it sure doesn't seem like a lot of pressure. 

Of course, that's not enough for CSB. With this quote, I think it's pretty clear where they're headed:
The CSB identified the grant funding body’s role in safety as a missed opportunity to
influence positive safety management and behavior. Prudent Practices supports this finding
in its latest edition: “When negligent or cavalier treatment of laboratory safety regulations
jeopardizes everybody’s ability to obtain funding, a powerful incentive is created to improve
laboratory safety” (NRC, 2011, p. 6). Stated more bluntly: “Whoever is in control of the
purse is in control of the institution” (McCroskey, 1990, p. 472). The grant funding agency
has the power to end a research contract/agreement and, thus, can play an impactful role in
raising safety awareness and preparedness by the researcher and university.  
I have always thought this would be a disaster to implement. They're basically saying, "If you're negligent, we might pull your funding." First of all, I don't know any funding agency that would be willing to do so; I mean, how often does NIH (the likeliest agency to have support Sheri Sangji) pull funding? Heck, you can lie on their dime, and they'll only ban you for 5 years. Second, what's the chance that an incident that was due to negligence or cavalierness would be reported? "Uh, here, fill out this form that will yank our funding. Ohbytheway, did I mention that I'm on your committee and I'm counting on this funding for part of my salary?" Yeah, that'll happen. 

That said, I think this falls under the category of 'useful bad ideas.' I think this would be an incredibly blunt instrument -- but it would be effective. Even the threat of pulling institutional funding would be enough to start a cultural shift towards safety. 

Why do I think it seems as though the [PIs involved] has been “protected”? 

For what it's worth, I don't think they've been protected, but it's hard to see them having suffered materially. Certainly, neither Professor Brandon nor Louisa Hope-Weeks seem to still have their positions. I presume that neither of them are going to be getting any grants from DHS again anytime soon. Professor Patrick Harran still has his position at UCLA after the Sangji incident.

If there's a reason they've remained relatively free of interference, it's the same reason as always: professors have academic freedom, and they're unafraid to assert it when it comes to matters of chemical safety, as explained by CSB:
At academic research institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity
as infringing upon their academic freedom. This was the case at Texas Tech, where EH&S
laboratory safety checks were not viewed as a means to understand how a PIs’ laboratory
practiced safety in their absence. Instead, some PIs saw the notification of safety violations
to the Chair as “building a case” against them, felt that the safety inspections inhibited their
research, and considered recommended safety changes outside their control because they
could not “babysit” their students. 
Seems to me that this is a bit of the stretch of the definition of academic freedom. 

What's my solution to all of this? I dunno. I'm pretty hesitant to suggest policies, so I only have two. One of them is pretty small (and similar to yours), the other, uh, it'll never happen:

Universities and departments need to take back their students: When you go to graduate school in chemistry, who do you work for? If anyone ever asked me that question, I'd say my PI. Who do you belong to? Well, I belong to my PI and I have a vague affiliation with my department (they pay me, sort of) and I'm a student at the university (they have my name on a roll somewhere, and I have to get a parking pass from them.) 

For there to be oversight of professors and principal investigators, universities and departments need to take ownership and care of the students that are titularly their responsibility. They need to say to professors, "You hurt one of my students, you're in big, big trouble." (Maybe this is where the funding thing comes in. And the hiding thing, too, for that matter.) I think this happens, but it's a lot spottier than it needs to be. I think this might be part of the change that CSB is pushing for; we'll see. 

Better training: How do you get safer in the lab? If it's important enough to worry about, it's important enough to practice. Most of the time, this simply involves a simulated fire and then learning to use a fire extinguisher to put it out. Why not expand this practice? 

Walk students through a cannulation procedure of a (simulated?) pyrophoric. Make someone reenact the TTU incident and make someone role-play trying to get a coworker in the lab to quit doing something dangerous. Give people synthetic routes and experiments and ask them what hazards exist and which references to use to determine the appropriate solutions.

I'll bet that in an annual all-attendance one-week course with daily 2 hour breakout sessions, you could really drill into your students and postdocs that Safety is Important. Caltech's Safety Day is a really good start -- you could imagine that a Safety Week would really make for a significant culture change. 

I think we agree that PIs need to be more responsible -- what other policies would you suggest, STEM_Wonk? Do you think mine have a shot at all of being implemented? Do you think they'd be effective? [Biggest question: do you think they'd have a chance of being funded?]

Hope your day is going well -- I feel like I'm late for work (only a little). 

Cheers, Chemjobber


  1. I think you'll probably have to start using some sticks to make a big change in the safety culture at academic labs.

  2. I think the funding agencies are the best place to hit them. The NIH now requires statements of ethics training i believe, and i am sure it counts such things as diversity of trainees towards a funding score. Why not demand safety awareness? Occasional training? If the agencies push the PIs and the schools, while also holding them accountable, then they will get into line.

    I basically think of the responsibility of the PI vs student as a sliding scale, with the PI having less and less responsibility as the student progresses (towards independence, natch). So, if the Texas Tech incident was by a rotation student, 90+% fault of PI/other lab members; if he was ready to write up and get out (which seemed to be the case) then 90+% student's own fault. (Although reading that description of the department's attitude above is kind of chilling! Like an out of control union protecting members violating the law.)

  3. Bad wolf, I had thought about tying in the ethics training example as well and the similarities in that case. There was a really great example of peer-taught modules on ethics developed by the University of Michigan published in the Journal of Chemical Education. Linked here: Similar modules on academic chemical safety also taught about the time the ethics case studies are taught (student orientation) would be a great addition to push the mentality of a Safety is Important culture.


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