Some Thoughts on the UCLA/Harran/Sangji Case
Jyllian Kemsley has a post that summarizes all of the coverage and commentary on the UCLA/Harran news. Her blog is undoubtedly the best place to follow developments in this story. The case has so many component issues that one could easily write 20,000 words and still not feel the subject has been properly analyzed. Instead of doing that, let me start off with some preliminary thoughts:
I am not a lawyer. I am almost completely unfamiliar with California labor law and OSHA requirements for how employers must ensure safe laboratory conditions for their employees. Harran may have broken the law; he may not have. I can’t render a reliable opinion of his prospective guilt with regard to the charges.
Severity of charges. While I’m not a lawyer, I think I’m entitled to a loose opinion of what makes sense in this case. The idea that Harran faces up to 4.5 years in prison seems excessive to me, especially when you consider that Harran probably oversaw the safety of his lab in a manner typical of most top-flight professors. Is the state of California going to attempt to imprison every professor whose students don’t wear lab coats, or just the professors who happen to be at the helm when an accidental death occurs?
Punishment. While I believe that a prison term would not be warranted for a conviction in this case, there must be some serious punishment for failing to maintain a safe laboratory work environment. Lack of holding management responsible for running unsafe labs is probably one major reason the culture of academic safety is broken. For the most part, states have left schools to police themselves with regard to safety, and guess what…schools (id est, faculties…id est, professors) don’t impose any meaningful punishments on themselves. With respect to Harran, I think the charges should be “wobbled” down to misdemeanors that can draw smaller fines (in the thousands, not millions) and a shorter suspended sentence (if Harran is convicted). The (seemingly) most appropriate and meaningful punishment for a manager/PI who runs an unsafe lab is termination. While I don’t think a court could force the university to fire a professor, if the university retains a PI known for running an unsafe lab, it is sending a rotten message. At present, UCLA seems to be standing by Harran.
Prospective jurors won’t be chemists. Most of us have worked around academic labs for several years and are familiar with the element of laxity in these environments. While we accept this culture as normal, I think it will be easy for an experienced lawyer to highlight some of the aspects of life in an academic lab in a way that members of the public (including jurors) will find appalling.
Nonsensical laws. I lack the experience of a lawyer or legislator, but there are certain aspects of the law that seem silly to me. For instance, Sheri was a lab tech, and apparently, the law treats lab techs differently from grad students. Here, Sheri was doing the exact same type of work as a grad student. This disparity doesn’t make any sense to me and just illustrates that academic scientists have not been very effective at lobbying to change silly laws. You see it all the time in safety. Why does 1 gallon of isopropanol/KOH in a 5-gallon container “count” as 5 gallons of flammable solvent during fire inspections (against a 10-gallon-per-room limit)? The 1 gallon is “safer” to use in a 5-gallon container than a 1-gallon container (i.e., no splashing out of the bucket). Also, why can’t safety showers be hooked into the drainage system of a building? What, exactly, is being protected there?
Who gets the blame when everyone is to blame? This case seems headed for a tort, which means that someone is going to have to figure out how to apportion blame for Sangji’s death. While it looks like Harran didn’t have his responsibilities under control, neither did Sangji. It was her responsibility to wear a lab coat (assuming one was available), and my feeling is that even though she wasn’t a Ph.D. chemist, she most likely knew that she was working with a dangerous material in an iffy way (3 x full syringe vs. cannula). Sheri paid the ultimate price for her negligence. Now, how much will UCLA and Harran have to pay (if anything)? I have no idea how one begins to address this issue quantitatively.
Will this case result in constructive change? The culture of safety in academic labs is broken. The tragic accident that occurred at UCLA could have easily happened at hundreds of other schools around the country, because the extent to which lab workers are trained—and monitored for compliance—in academia is a joke. My dissatisfaction centers on two main issues: (i) the actual safety knowledge of lab workers in academia is poor and (ii) safety programs at universities seem focused on limiting liability rather than actually improving worker safety. I imagine there are a few exceptional departments in the United States, but I challenge anyone to mount a tenable argument against this assessment. I really don’t see the Harran charges doing much to improve the first point, and I think the second issue will be severely exacerbated by this case. It would be nice if safety officers at schools could focus more on actually training students than devising vapid PowerPoint slides that “cover all the bases”.