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Safety in academic chemistry labs (with some thoughts on incentives).

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Earlier this month, Chemjobber and I had a conversation that became a podcast. We covered lots of territory, from the Sheri Sangji case, to the different perspectives on lab safety in industry and academia, to broader questions about how to make attention to safety part of the culture of chemistry. Below is a transcript of a piece of that conversation (from about 07:45 to 19:25). I think there are some relevant connections here to my earlier post about strategies for delivering ethics training — a post which Jyllian Kemsley notes may have some lessons for safety-training, too.

Chemjobber: I think, academic-chemistry-wise, we might do better at looking out after premeds than we do at looking out after your typical first year graduate student in the lab.

Janet: Yeah, and I wonder why that is, actually, given the excess of premeds. Maybe that’s the wrong place to put our attention.* But maybe the assumption is that, you know, not everyone taking a chemistry lab course is necessarily going to come into the lab knowing everything they need to know to be safe. And that’s probably a safe assumption to make even about people who are good in chemistry classes. So, that’s one of those things that I think we could do a lot better at, just recognizing that there are hazards and that people who have never been in these situations before don’t necessarily know ho to handle them.

Chemjobber: Yeah, I agree. I don’t know what the best way is to make sure to inculcate that sort of lab safety stuff into graduate school. Because graduate school research is supposed to be kind of free-flowing and spontaneous — you have a project and you don’t really know where it’s going to lead you. On the other hand, a premed organic chemistry class is a really artificial environment where there is an obvious beginning and an obvious end and you stick the safety discussion right at the beginning. I remember doing this, where you pull out the MSDS that’s really scary sounding and you scare the pants off the students.

Janet: I don’t even think alarming them is necessarily the way to go, but just saying, hey, it matters how you do this, it matters where you do this, this is why it matters.

Chemjobber: Right.

Janet: And I guess in research, you’re right, there is this very open-ended, free-flowing thing. You try to build knowledge that maybe doesn’t exist yet. You don’t know where it’s going to go. You don’t necessarily know what the best way to build that knowledge is going to be. I think where we fall short sometimes is that there may be an awful lot of knowledge out there somewhere, that if you take this approach, with these techniques or with these chemicals, here are some dangers that are known. Here are some risks that someone knows about. You may not know them yet, but maybe we need to do better in the conceiving-of-the-project stage at making that part of the search of prior literature. Not just, what do we know about this reaction mechanism, but what do we know about the gnarly reagents you need to be able to work with to pursue a similar kind of reaction.

Chemjobber: Yeah. My understanding is that in the UK, before you do every experiment, there’s supposed to be a formalized written risk analysis. UK listeners can comment on whether those actually happen. But it seems like they do, because, you know, when you see online conversation of it, it’s like, “What? You guys don’t do that in the US?” No, we don’t.

Janet: There’s lots of things we don’t do. We don’t have a national health service either.

Chemjobber: But how would you make the bench-level researcher do that risk analysis? How does the PI make the bench-level researcher do that? I don’t know. … Neal Langerman is a prominent chemical safety expert. Beryl Benderly is somebody who writes on the Sheri Sangji case who’s talked about this, which is that basically that we should fully and totally incentivize this by tying academic lab safety to grants and tenure. What do you think?

Janet: I think that the intuition is right that if there’s not some real consequence for not caring about safety, it’s going to be the case that some academic researchers, making a rational calculation about what they have to do and what they’re going to be rewarded on and what they’re going to be punished for, are going to say, this would be nice in a perfect world. But there really aren’t enough hours in the day, and I’ve got to churn out the data, and I’ve got to get it analyzed and get the manuscript submitted, especially because I think that other group that was working on something like this might be getting close, and lord knows we don’t want to get scooped — you know, if there’s no consequence for not doing it, if there’s no culture of doing it, if there’s no kind of repercussion among their peers and their professional community for not doing it, a large number of people are going to make the rational calculation that there’s no point in doing it.

Chemjobber: Yeah.

Janet: Maybe they’ll do it as a student exercise or something, but you know what, students are pretty clever, and they get to a point where they actually watch what the PI who is advising them does, and form something like a model of “this is what you need to do to be a successful PI”. And all the parts of what their PI does that are invisible to them? At least to a first approximation, those are not part of the model.

Chemjobber: Right. I’ve been on record as saying that I find tying lab safety to tenure especially to be really dangerous, because you’re giving an incredible incentive to hide incidents. I mean, “For everybody’s sake, sweep this under the rug!” is what might come of this. Obviously, if somebody dies, you can’t hide that.

Janet: Hard to hide unless you’ve got off-the-books grad students, which … why would you do that?

Chemjobber: Are you kidding? There’s a huge supply of them already! But, my concern with tying lab safety to tenure is that I have a difficult time seeing how you would make that a metric other than, if you’ve reported an accident, you will not get tenure, or, if you have more than two accidents a year, you will not get tenure. For the marginal cases, the incentive becomes very high to hide these accidents.

Janet: Here’s a way it might work, though — and I know this sort of goes against the grain, since tenure committees much prefer something they can count to things they have to think about, which is why the number of publications and the impact factor becomes way more important somehow than the quality or importance of the publications as judged by experts in the field. But, something like this might work: if you said, what we’re going to look at in evaluating safety and commitment to safety for your grants and tenure is whether you’ve developed a plan. We’re going to look at what you’ve done to talk with the people in your lab about the plan, and at what you’ve done to involve them in executing the plan. So we’re going to look at it as maybe a part of your teaching, a part of your mentoring — and here, I know some people are going to laugh, because mentoring is another one of those things that presumably is supposed to be happening in academic chemistry programs, but whether it’s seriously evaluated or not, other than by counting the number of students who you graduate per year, is … you know, maybe it’s not evaluated as rigorously as it might be. But, if it became a matter of “Show us the steps you’re taking to incorporate an awareness and a seriousness about safety into how you train these graduate students to be grown-up chemists,” that’s a different kind of thing from, “Oh, and did you have any accidents or not?” Because sometimes the accidents are because you haven’t paid attention at all to safety, but sometimes the accidents are really just bad luck.

Chemjobber: Right.

Janet: And you know, maybe this isn’t going to happen every place, but at places like my university, in our tenure dossiers, they take seriously things like grant proposals we have written as part of our scholarly work, whether or not they get funded. You include them so the people evaluating your tenure dossier can evaluate the quality of your grant proposal, and you get some credit for that work even if it’s a bad pay-line year. So a safety plan and evidence of its implementation you might get credit for even if it’s been a bad year as far as accidents.

Chemjobber: I think that’s fair. You know, I think that everybody hopes that with a high-stakes thing like tenure, there’s lots of “human factor” and relatively little number-crunching.

Janet: Yeah, but you know, then you’re on the committee that has to evaluate a large number of dossiers. Human nature kicks in and counting is easier than evaluating, isn’t it?

* Let the record reflect that despite our joking about “excesses” of premeds, neither I nor Chemjobber have it in for premeds. Especially so now that neither of us is TAing a premed course.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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