ADVERTISEMENT
Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

Why does lab safety look different to chemists in academia and chemists in industry?

|

Here's another approximate transcript of the conversation I had with Chemjobber that became a podcast. In this segment (from about 19:30 to 29:30), we consider how reaction to the Sheri Sangji case sound different when they're coming from academic chemists than when they're coming from industry, and we spin some hypotheses about what might be going on behind those differences:

Chemjobber: I know that you wanted to talk about the response of industrial chemists versus academic chemists to the Sheri Sangji case.

Janet: This is one of the things that jumps out at me in the comment threads on your blog posts about the Sangji case. (Your commenters, by the way, are awesome. What a great community of commenters engaging with this stuff.) It really does seem that the commenters who are coming from industry are saying, "These conditions that we're hearing about in the Harran lab (and maybe in academic labs in general) are not good conditions for producing knowledge as safely as we can." And the academic commenters are saying, "Oh come on, it's like this everywhere! Why are you going to hold this one guy responsible for something that could have happened to any of us?" It shines a light on something interesting about how academic labs building knowledge function really differently from industrial labs building knowledge.

Chemjobber: Yeah, I don't know. It's very difficult for me to separate out whether it's culture or law or something else. Certainly I think there's a culture aspect of it, which is that every large company and most small companies really try hard to have some sort of a safety culture. Whether or not they actually stick to it is a different story, but what I've seen is that the bigger the company, the more it really matters. Part of it, I think, is that people are older and a little bit wiser, they're better at looking over each other's shoulders and saying, "What are you doing over there?" and "So, you're planning to do that? That doesn't sound like a great idea." It seems like there's less of that in academia. And then there's the regulatory aspect of it. Industrial chemists are workers, the companies they're working for are employers, and there's a clear legal aspect to that. Even as under-resourced as OSHA is, there is an actual legal structure prepared to deal with accidents. If the Sangji incident had happened at a very large company, most people think that heads would have rolled, letters would have been placed in evaluation files, and careers would be over.

Janet: Or at least the lab would probably have been shut down until a whole bunch of stuff was changed.

Chemjobber: But in academia, it looks like things are different.

Janet: I have some hunches that perhaps support some of your hunches here about where the differences are coming from. First of all, the set-up in academia assumes radical autonomy on the part of the PI about how to run his or her lab. Much of that is for the good as far as allowing different ways to tackle the creative problems about how to ask the scientific questions to better shake loose the piece of knowledge you're trying to shake loose, or allowing a range of different work habits that might be successful for these people you're training to be grown-up scientists in your scientific field. And along with that radical autonomy -- your lab is your fiefdom -- in a given academic chemistry department you're also likely to have a wide array of chemical sub-fields that people are exploring. So, depending on the size of your department, you can't necessarily count on there being more than a couple other PIs in the department who really understand your work well enough that they would have deep insight into whether what you're doing is safe or really dangerous. It's a different kind of resource that you have available right at hand -- there's maybe a different kind of peer pressure that you have in your immediate professional and work environment acting on the industrial chemist than on the academic chemist. I think that probably plays some role in how PIs in academia are maybe aren't as up on potential safety risks of new work they're doing as they might be otherwise. And then, of course, there's the really different kinds of rewards people are working for in industry versus academia, and how the whole tenure race ends up asking more and more of people with the same 24 hours in the day as anyone else. So, people on the tenure track start asking, "What are the things I'm really rewarded for? Because obviously, if I'm going to succeed, that's where I have to focus my attention."

Chemjobber: It's funny how the "T" word keeps coming up.

Janet: By the same token, in a university system that has consistently tried to male it easier to fire faculty at whim because they're expensive, I sort of see the value of tenure. I'm not at all argue that tenure is something that academic chemists don't need. But, it may be that the particulars of how we evaluate people for tenure are incentivizing behaviors that are not helping the safety of the people building the knowledge or the well-being of the people who are training to be grown-ups in these professional communities.

Chemjobber: That's right. We should just say specifically that in this particular case, Patrick Harran already had tenure, and I believe he is still a chaired professor at UCLA.

Janet: I think maybe the thing to point out is that some of these expectations, some of these standard operating procedures within disciplines in academia, are heavily shaped by the things that are rewarded for tenure, and then for promotion to full professor, and then whatever else. So, even if you're tenured, you're still soaking in that same culture that is informing the people who are trying to get permission to stay there permanently rather than being thanked for their six years of service and shown the door. You're still soaking in that culture that says, "Here's what's really important." Because if something else was really important, then by golly that's how we'd be choosing who gets to stay here for reals and who's just passing through.

Chemjobber: Yes.

Janet: I don't know as much about the typical life cycle of the employee in industrial chemistry, but my sense is that maybe the fact that grad students and postdocs and, to some extent, technicians are sort of transient in the community of academic chemistry might make a difference as well -- that they're seen as people who are passing through, and that the people who are more permanent fixtures in that world either forget that they come in not knowing all the stuff that the people who have been there for a long, long time know, or they're sort of making a calculation, whether they realize it or not, about how important it is to convey some of this stuff they know to transients in their academic labs.

Chemjobber: Yeah, I think that's true. Numerically, there's certainly a lot less turnover in industry than there is in academic labs.

Janet: I would hope so!

Chemjobber: Especially from the bench-worker perspective. It's unfortunate that layoffs happen (topic for another podcast!), but that seems to be the main source of turnover in industry these days.

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

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Back to School Sale!

One year just $19.99

Order now >

X

Email this Article

X