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Community responsibility for a safety culture in academic chemistry.

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This is another approximate transcript of a part of the conversation I had with Chemjobber that became a podcast. This segment (from about 29:55 to 52:00) includes our discussion of what a just punishment might look like for PI Patrick Harran for his part in the Sheri Sangji case. From there, our discussion shifted to the question of how to make the culture of academic chemistry safer:

Chemjobber: One of the things that I guess I'll ask is whether you think we'll get justice out of this legal process in the Sheri Sangji case.

Janet: I think about this, I grapple with this, and about half the time when I do, I end up thinking that punishment -- and figuring out the appropriate punishment for Patrick Harran -- doesn't even make my top-five list of things that should come out of all this. I kind of feel like a decent person should feel really, really bad about what happened, and should devote his life forward from here to making the conditions that enabled the accident that killed Sheri Sangji go away. But, you know, maybe he's not a decent person. Who the heck can tell? And certainly, once you put things in the context where you have a legal team defending you against criminal charges -- that tends to obscure the question of whether you're a decent person or not, because suddenly you've got lawyers acting on your behalf in all sorts of ways that don't look decent at all.

Chemjobber: Right.

Janet: I think the bigger question in my mind is how does the community respond? How does the chemistry department at UCLA, how does the larger community of academic chemistry, how do Patrick Harran's colleagues at UCLA and elsewhere respond to all of this? I know that there are some people who say, "Look, he really fell down on the job safety-wise, and in terms of creating an environment for people working on his behalf, and someone died, and he should do jail time." I don't actually know if putting him in jail changes the conditions on the outside, and I've said that I think, in some ways, tucking him away in jail for however many months makes it easier for the people who are still running academic labs while he's incarcerated to say, "OK, the problem is taken care of. The bad actor is out of the pool. Not a problem," rather than looking at what it is about the culture of academic chemistry that has us devoting so little of our time and energy to making sure we're doing this safely. So, if it were up to me, if I were the Queen of Just Punishment in the world of academic chemistry, I've said his job from here on out should be to be Safety in the Research Culture Guy. That's what he gets to work on. He doesn't get to go forward and conduct new research on some chemical question like none of this ever happened. Because something happened. Something bad happened, and the reason something bad happened, I think, is because of a culture in academic chemistry where it was acceptable for a PI not to pay attention to safety considerations until something bad happened. And that's got to change.

Chemjobber: I think it will change. I should point out here that if your proposed punishment were enacted, it would be quite a punishment, because he wouldn't get to choose what he worked on anymore, and that, to a great extent, is the joy of academic research, that it's self-directed and that there is lots and lots of freedom. I don't get to choose the research problems I work on, because I do it for money. My choices are more or less made by somebody else.

Janet: But they pay you.

Chemjobber: But they pay me.

Janet: I think I'd even be OK saying maybe Harran gets to do 50% of his research on self-directed research topics. But the other 50% is he has to go be an evangelist for changing how we approach the question of safety in academic research.

Chemjobber: Right.

Janet: He's still part of the community, he's still "one of us," but he has to show us how we are treading dangerously close to the conditions that led to the really bad thing that happened in his lab, so we can change that.

Chemjobber: Hmm.

Janet: And not just make it an individual thing. I think all of the attempts to boil what happened down to all being the individual responsibility of the technician, or of the PI, or it's a split between the individual responsibility of one and the individual responsibility of the other, totally misses the institutional responsibility, and the responsibility of the professional community, and how systemic factors that the community is responsible for failed here.

Chemjobber: Hmm.

Janet: And I think sometimes we need individuals to step up and say, part of me acknowledging my personal responsibility here is to point to the ways that the decisions I made within the landscape we've got -- of what we take seriously, of what's rewarded and what's punished -- led to this really bad outcome. I think that's part of the power here is when academic chemists say, "I would be horrified if you jailed this guy because this could have happened in any of our labs," I think they're right. I think they're right, and I think we have to ask how it is that conditions in these academic communities got to the point where we're lucky that more people haven't been seriously injured or killed by some of the bad things that could happen -- that we don't even know that we're walking into because safety gets that short shrift.

Chemjobber: Wow, that's heavy. I'm not sure whether there are industrial chemists whose primary job is to think about safety. Is part of the issue we have here that safety has been professionalized? We have industrial chemical hygienists and safety engineers. Every university has an EH&S [environmental health and safety] department. Does that make safety somebody else's problem? And maybe if Patrick Harran were to become a safety evangelist, it would be a way of saying it's our problem, and we all have to learn, we have to figure out a way to deal with this?

Janet:Yeah. I actually know that there exist safety officers in academic science departments, partly because I serve on some university committees with people who fill that role -- so I know they exist. I don't know how much the people doing research in those departments actually talk with those safety officers before something goes wrong, or how much of it goes beyond "Oh, there's paperwork we need to make sure is filed in the right place in case there's an inspection," or something like that. But it strikes me that safety should be more collaborative. In some ways, wouldn't that be a more gripping weekly seminar to have in a chemistry department for grad students working in the lab, even just once a month on the weekly seminar, to have a safety roundtable? "Here are the risks that we found out about in this kind of work," or talking about unforeseen things that might happen, or how do you get started finding out about proper precautions as you're beginning a new line of research? What's your strategy for figuring that out? Who do you talk to? I honestly feel like this is a part of chemical education at the graduate level that is extremely underdeveloped. I know there's been some talk about changing the undergraduate chemistry degree so that it includes something like a certificate program in chemical safety, and maybe that will fix it all. But I think the only thing that fixes it all is really making it part of the day to day lived culture of how we build new knowledge in chemistry, that the safety around how that knowledge gets built is an ongoing part of the conversation.

Chemjobber: Hmm.

Janet: It's not something we talk about once and then never again. Because that's not how research works. We don't say, "Here's our protocol. We never have to revisit it. We'll just keep running it until we have enough data, and then we're done."

Chemjobber: Right.

Janet: Show me an experiment that's like that. I've never touched an experiment like that in my life.

Chemjobber: So, how many times do you remember your Ph.D. advisor talking to you about safety?

Janet: Zero. He was a really good advisor, he was a very good mentor, but essentially, how it worked in our lab was that the grad students who were further on would talk to the grad students who were newer about "Here's what you need to be careful about with this reaction, " or "If you've got overflow of your chemical waste, here's who to call to do the clean-up," or "Here's the paperwork you fill out to have the chemical waste hauled away properly." So, the culture was the people who were in the lab day to day were the keepers of the safety information, and luckily I joined a lab where those grad students were very forthcoming. They wanted to share that information. You didn't have to ask because they offered it first. I don't think it happens that way in every lab, though.

Chemjobber: I think you're right. The thorniness of the problem of turning chemical safety into a day to day thing, within the lab -- within a specific group -- is you're relying on this group of people that are transient, and they're human, so some people really care about it and some people tend not to care about it. I had an advisor who didn't talk about safety all the time but did, on a number of occasions, yank us all short and say, "Hey, look, what you're doing is dangerous!" I clearly remember specific admonishments: "Hey, that's dangerous! Don't do that!"

Janet: I suspect that may be more common in organic chemistry than in physical chemistry, which is my area. You guys work with stuff that seems to have a lot more potential to do interesting things in interesting ways. The other thing, too, is that in my research group we were united by a common set of theoretical approaches, but we all worked in different kinds of experimental systems which had different kinds of hazards. The folks doing combustion reactions had different things to worry about than me, working with my aqueous reaction in a flow-through reactor, while someone in the next room was working with enzymatic reactions. We were all over the map. Nothing that any of us worked with seemed to have real deadly potential, at least as we were running it, but who knows?

Chemjobber: Right.

Janet: And given that different labs have very different dynamics, that could make it hard to actually implement a desire to have safety become a part of the day to day discussions people are having as they're building the knowledge. But this might really be a good place for departments and graduate training programs to step up. To say, "OK, you've got your PI who's running his or her own fiefdom in the lab, but we're the other professional parental unit looking out for your well being, so we're going to have these ongoing discussions with graduate cohorts made up of students who are working in different labs about safety and how to think about safety where the rubber hits the road." Actually bringing those discussions out of the research group, the research group meeting, might provide a space where people can become reflective about how things go in their own labs and can see something about how things are being done differently in other labs, and start piecing together strategies, start thinking about what they want the practices to be like when they're the grown-up chemists running their own labs. How do they want to make safety something that's part of the job, not an add on that's being slapped on or something that's being forgotten altogether.

Chemjobber: Right.

Janet: But of course, graduate training programs would have to care enough about that to figure out how to put the resources on it, to make it happen.

Chemjobber: I'm in profound sympathy with the people who would have to figure out how to do that. I don't really know anything about the structure of a graduate training program other than, you know, "Do good work, and try to graduate sooner rather than later." But I assume that in the last 20 to 30 years, there have been new mandates like "OK, you all need to have some kind of ethics component" --

Janet: -- because ethics coursework will keep people from cheating! Except that's an oversimplified equation. But ethics is a requirement they're heaping on, and safety could certainly be another. The question is how to do that sensibly rather than making it clear that we're doing this only because there's a mandate from someone else that we do it.

Chemjobber: One of the things that I've always thought about in terms of how to better inculcate safety in academic labs is maybe to have training that happens every year, that takes a week. New first-years come in and you get run through some sort of a lab safety thing where you go and you set up the experiment and weird things are going to happen. It's kind of an artificial environment where you have to go in and run a dangerous reaction as a drill that reminds you that there are real-world consequences. I think Chembark talked about how, in Caltech Safety Day, they brought out one of the lasers and put a hole through an apple. Since Paul is an organic chemist, I don't think he does that very often, but his response was "Oh, if I enter one of these laser labs, I should probably have my safety glasses on." There's a limit to the effectiveness of that sort of stuff. you have to really, really think about how to design it, and a week out of a year is a long time, and who's going to run it? I think your idea of the older students in the lab being the ones who really do a lot of the day to day safety stuff is important. What happens when there are no older students in the lab?

Janet: That's right, when you're the first cohort in the PI's lab.

Chemjobber: Or, when there hasn't been much funding for students and suddenly now you have funding for students.

Janet: And there's also the question of going from a sparsely populated lab to a really crowded lab when you have the funding but you don't suddenly have more lab space. And crowded labs have different kinds of safety concerns than sparsely populated labs.

Chemjobber: That's very true.

Janet: I also wonder whether the "grown-up" chemists, the postdocs and the PIs, ought to be involved in some sort of regular safety ... I guess casting it as "training" is likely to get people's hackles up, and they're likely to say, "I have even less time for this than my students do."

Chemjobber: Right.

Janet: But at the same time, pretending that they learned everything they need to know about safety in grad school? Really? Really you did? When we're talking now about how maybe the safety training for graduate students is inadequate, you magically got the training that tells you everything you need to know from here on out about safety? That seems weird. And also, presumably, the risks of certain kinds of procedures and certain kinds of reagents -- that's something about which our knowledge continues to increase as well. So, finding ways to keep up on that, to come up with safer techniques and better responses when things do go wrong -- some kind of continuing education, continuing involvement with that. If there was a way to do it to include the PIs and the people they're employing or training, to engage them together, maybe that would be effective.

Chemjobber: Hmm.

Janet: It would at least make it seem less like, "This is education we have to give our students, this is one more requirement to throw on the pile, but we wouldn't do it if we had the choice, because it gets in the way of making knowledge." Making knowledge is good. I think making knowledge is important, but we're human beings making knowledge and we'd like to live long enough to appreciate that knowledge. Graduate students shouldn't be consumable resources in the knowledge-building the same way that chemical reagents are.

Chemjobber: Yeah.

Janet: Because I bet you the disposal paperwork on graduate students is a fair bit more rigorous than for chemical waste.

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

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