Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Does anyone think Professor Harran should go to jail?

Many people mistake Rudy Baum for the "voice of chemistry" -- picture the anger of readers in Chemical and Engineering News' mailbox whenever he inveighs on the perils of climate change. However, he does have a prominent position in chemistry as the editor-in-chief of C&EN. I certainly pay attention when he has this to say about the #SheriSangji case:
Many of the comments on the blogs and other news stories have shown no such restraint. Among the worst are those that suggest that, at 23 and with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Sangji was an experienced chemist who should have known better; that her death was, in fact, her own fault; and that UC and Harran are guilty of nothing at all. “Sheri was a big girl, an educated adult responsible for her own actions who did not need to be babysat in the chemistry lab,” one commenter wrote. Others maintain, essentially, that making an example of UC and Harran by throwing the book at them is the only way that the lax attitude toward safety in too many academic labs will be corrected. 
Neither of these extreme positions seems appropriate to me. That UC and Harran should face no sanctions given the facts that are known is unacceptable. As Kemsley said to me in a conversation about the case, the only people who think of a 23-year-old as experienced are 21- and 22-year-olds. Sangji was clearly unprepared to conduct the experiment that killed her. Other people in Harran’s lab who were there at the time of the accident were just as ignorant of basic safety procedures. 
That said, sending Harran to prison for what are all-too-common safety lapses in academic labs would be overly harsh and almost certainly counterproductive. We need to change the safety culture in academic labs, not shut them down. If Harran is found guilty of the charges against him, a hefty dose of community service—maybe teaching lab courses and lab safety in Los Angeles high schools—would be a much more appropriate penalty to impose on him.
Here's my question: does anyone think that Professor Patrick Harran deserves to go to prison? Rudy doesn't. Paul doesn't. (I know that's the gamut of opinion in the chemblogosphere from A to G.) I haven't found anyone who think that Harran actually deserves to go to prison; those commenters that do advocate for it seem to do so pour encourager les autres, i.e. chemistry PIs. That's not just, nor is it going to happen.

I think Harran going to prison is wildly unlikely and probably counterproductive. If Patrick Harran deserves to go to prison for the conditions in his laboratory, there are a lot of PIs in this country that are going to spend time in the slammer. That said, I'm willing to entertain reasons as to why he might deserve the harshest sanction possible.*

I'm inviting readers and commenters to make a rational case as to why Professor Harran deserves prison time. If you don't want to wrestle with the comment box, you can always e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Commenters that are selected by me and/or by popular acclaim will be given a prominent spot on the blog -- probably next Tuesday's headliner for the day. (And if there are no cases for the prosecution (actually the sentencing phase), I'll do it myself.)

*I'm also willing to confess that all of this might be my possible prejudice that "professors who make serious and irresponsible mistakes are too nice and of the wrong socio-economic status to go to prison." But I have fairly serious policy (Kleiman-esque, if anyone cares) views on prisons, especially California ones.


  1. I don't think he's worse than any other PI, except for the student dying and all...

    He should be treated as others in the same situation are treated. Are supervisors regularly given jail time for a worker's death if they are found to be negligent? My gut says probably not.

  2. I don't think he deserves prison; like any other supervisor who is grossly negligent of safety (in any field), he deserves to be excoriated publically, fined, and fired.

  3. Nick, I think that's an interesting formulation. Of those three, do you think the first item (excoriation) has happen, and a degree that you think is appropriate?

    Merriam-Webster: "excoriate: to censure scathingly."

  4. I'd say the first is partially satisfied: Googling his name rapidly turns up a bunch of relevant information and many notable sources (including this weblog) have discussed the case at length. Anyone looking to inform themself about this case should find no shortage of information. On the downside, however, that a lot of the coverage has been insufficiently critical: Just because the safety problems are "all-too-common safety lapses in academic labs" doesn't mean that they're not unforgivable, and the fact that a lot of prominent PIs are offenders shouldn't deter harsh sanctions.

    To my mind, there should be two goals served by Prof. Harran's treatment: He should be removed from any position where his demonstrated negligence might injure others, and he should face enough damage to his reputation and career that prods other PIs to do a better job with safety. The failure to train your lab personnel properly is not a crime of passion or desperation, and science professors are far from stupid; this makes effective deterrence a real possibility here. Put a bit of the fear into them, and I'd bet that a lot of profs will do a lot more for lab safety. Public censure and fines serve the second goal; firing him serves both.

  5. If Harran doesn't deserve to go to jail, than neither does a drunk driver who accidentally kills someone - "lots of other people do it" and "he didn't mean to kill someone" are good enough excuses!

  6. I'm interested to know (from an actual expert or lawyer on this) if this were an immediate supervisor showing this lack of oversight in an industrial setting and their worker died, what would be the typical repercussion? Because I sure expect jail time there. It's willful negligence that led to a death.

  7. http://www.safetynewsalert.com/owner-supervisor-jailed-for-workers-death/

  8. I think it is a bit too premature to speculate on Professor Harran's sentence. For goodness sakes! Let the man go to trial first. We have no more of an idea if he is guilty of the charges at this point. But if folks insist on speculating, please, at least include this caveat:

    For someone found to be guilty of these charges, then I think an appropriate sentence would be...

  9. @Debra,
    Your point is well taken. However, CJ explicitly asks in the title of his post that people play prosecutor, not judge/jury. I think that many chemists are hesitant to hypothetically take on the role of prosecutor here because of our own closeness to this subject and our ability to so clearly see our own failings.

  10. CJ: Kudos to you for doggedly pursuing these and other issues related to this tragic event. More education is highly desirable to prevent the repeat incidences. My take is, when an individual hires you for the employment to do chemistry in the lab, you are an extension of his hand, if not the brain. If I were in his position and had many experienced people reporting to me (as was in the present case), I would have had an experienced graduate student or a post-doctoral trainee tag on Ms. Sangji to make sure, she was doing fine in the lab. I believe that Prof. Harran took her skill sets for granted and made that erroneous error that her experimental skill could be trusted to handle such a large volume of t-BuLi. He could have told her right up front that when she is ready for the scale up, he need to be consulted and take him into confidence. The reason it bothers me is that as we all know t-BuLi is not your ordinary stuff even at the hands of experienced one (given the fact that the scaled up procedure called for large volume) and not some one of Ms. Sangji's caliber. I would hold Prof. Harran for his culpability and also for his lackadaisical oversight!

  11. Good question. I am not eager to see anyone go to jail (As the TV show Life put it a while ago: “Aren’t you supposed to be in prison?” “No man is supposed to be in prison.”). But variation in prison sentences is also crazy. Former Illinois governor conducting ‘business as usual’, 14 years. Dominique Dunne’s boyfriend strangles her on her driveway, six year (served four).

    It bothers me that he would be in more trouble, and more likely to be fired, if he had made a pass at her and she had complained about sexual harassment. Up to now I don’t see where he has been held responsible in any way. Since the accident he has continued to find top students and postdocs. I see one postdoc was a grad student with Overman at UCI, one grad student from MIT.

    Professors have to be held responsible, with their loss of grants, tenure, and employment at risk. I want to see schools, departments, and funding agencies take this into account. If the funding agencies can mandate diversity or continuing education, surely they can adopt minimum safety requirements.

  12. @Matt, @Debra:

    I should note that I changed the title of the post to something plainer not too long after posting. It was "Who wants to make the prosecutor's case for #SheriSangji" or something.

  13. @CJ, @Debra
    Yikes ... my fault. I retract part of my previous statement

  14. @A10:46:

    Criminal liability for Harran would run counter to OSHA's finding, unlike the link you provided. OSHA didn't refer this to a prosecuter, prosecution came about through the actions of an overzealous relative of the deceased.

  15. @A2:30p:

    I disagree. The name of the relevant CalOSHA official is in the charging document: http://cen.acs.org/content/dam/cen/static/pdfs/Article_Assets/90/09001-notw1-uclacharges.pdf

  16. I think his tenure should be revoked. As for community service, if he gets probation and no jail time: volunteer work in a rehab hospital that treats burn patients. That will bring home the seriousness of his negligence in supervising Sangji.

  17. @Anon 4:57p : That is the thing that turns my stomach the most about this story: Sangji took over two weeks to die. What a horrible way to go. Community service in a burn unit would make me feel so much worse if I were Harran---a very appropriate punishment.

  18. Okay, so where does the university fit into all of this? Yes, PI's with tenure operate on their own islands; however, does the university or department have any culpability in this? I have to say, I am not as up-to-date with information, but did UCLA ever cite Harran's lab for gross negligence? Was there any safety inspections that UCLA or the chemistry department conduct and cited Harran's lab? Again, these may have been covered and I missed them. From my experience (I finished my Ph.D. with very well known organic professor), neither he nor the university ever required any safety training. It wasn't like the University/Department was offering all sorts of safety training and he forbade his group from attending (luckily there were no accidents during my time) - but doesn't the department/University also have some blame here?

    This is a tragedy beyond belief. A novice chemist working with a chemical that many seasoned chemists wouldn't work with (I for one don't work with it - my university is in the south and the humidity doesn't permit safe handling, IMO), and (apparently) with no supervision - not just the PI but others in the lab.

  19. Prof. Harran deserves some sort of censure for the state of affairs in his laboratory. Prison is extreme but let's face it, UCLA's fine of ~$40k was barely a slap on the wrist, that's the cost of one of the (seemingly useless) postdocs who didn't know what safety showers are for. SInce charges have been leveled against him a number of PI's here have begun to think about safety more. Granted, since they studied in laissez faire environments some of the things they've been doing are silly, but it's a start.

    I think he should have been fired but let's face it, someone who's pulling in the grant $$$ has job security at R1 universities.

  20. wouldn't be upset to see his get Manslaughter 2, or something equivalent of reckless endangerment. Would serve as a wake up call to the recklessly unsafe behavior in academic labs. Once had a first year in the lab next door ask to borrow a chunk of KCN (50-100g), and would take no suggestions about safety (traps, etc). He got it from somewhere else, and when I found out, left the building.
    there are too many risks being taken by PI is not making sure that the others in the lab are protected from the lack of training by one student (or RA, or postdoc). It should be for the safety of those not conducting the experiment that he be made an example of.

  21. @Anon(5:49) - Referring to your statement "...a chemical that many seasoned chemists wouldn't work with..." I wonder what qualifies a person to be "seasoned," or how long commenters believe one must have lab experience before using highly flammable pyrophorics?

    I, for one, used these compounds as early as my first year in graduate school, which would have put me at a lower "experience level" than Ms. Sangji. I believe that safe handling protocols, PPE, and an awareness of what to do when an incident occurs were the factors that allowed me a modicum of "safety" while using t-BuLi.

    It's NOT that Harran gave Sangji some highly dangerous chemical he would never touch, and then walked away. As CJ has mentioned in previous posts, pyrophorics require special handling and training to use, and (perhaps unfortunately) the only way to gain experience using them is to use them.

  22. If a PI is to get all the credit for work done in their lab, they should also take a major share in the blame or at least claim a good portion of the responsibility when things go horribly wrong. The extremely dodgy public statement that was released by Harran essentially abdicated almost all responsibility. Someone needs to hold him accountable in a way that's meaningful.

  23. See Arr Oh;

    I see your point. But gaining experience by using them (in my book) would entail not using them by yourself. Just a thought. You may have been a "more seasoned" chemist then most first year and even degreed individuals because you knew the risks and acted appropriately - something that didn't happen in this case. "Seasoned" can mean many things, but first and foremost knowing the dangers and actually doing something to mitigate the dangers goes a long way.

    But I disagree somewhat with your last statement. It is EXACTLY like Harran gave her a chemical (whether he would work with it or not is not the point) and walked away. It is clear he did not discuss the issues and made sure she knew what she was doing - hence the giving a chemical and walking away.

  24. Think Harran is being treated harshly? Check his safety record at his previous university and see if you can spot a trend!

  25. Just saw this post, thought I would comment. When you read the report's details and see how flagrantly standard procedures for handling the chemical were ignored ... well, draw your own conclusions. Taken for Granted columnist Beryl Benderly has presented the details, drawing on the report, on the Science Careers Blog:


    Read it and weep.

    Jim Austin, Editor
    Science Careers


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20