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The Sangji/UCLA/Harran Case: Now Officially a Mess

There have been a number of odd developments in the Sheri Sangji case, the lab fatality at UCLA that led to criminal charges being filed against both Prof. Patrick Harran and the university. The Doing Good Science blog at Scientific American has a thorough round-up of the latest.
Last Friday, charges were dropped against UCLA, and the case against Harran was separated. As part of the deal, UCLA agreed to establish a memorial scholarship and to improve its safety measures. We’re still finding out about those, but Chemjobber has more details here and here.
I note that this seems to be a process-heavy, paperwork-heavy system that’s going into place. And while that might help, I’m going to remain skeptical, since I’ve worked under similar conditions, and it did not stop some people from have lab accidents that they shouldn’t have had. Now, there’s no way of knowing how many accidents these policies prevented, but the ones that got through were just the sorts of things that this safety regime was designed to prevent. So one does have to wonder. It’s a natural impulse to think that process improvements are the answer to such situations, though. It’s especially going to come out that way when you have lawyers watching who will want to see measurable, quantifiable steps being taken. It’s not possible to measure how many people avoided lab hazards as a result of your safety measures – but it is possible to count how many meetings people have to attend, how many standard operating procedures they have to generate and sign off on, and so on.
Now as far as Prof. Harran’s case, here’s where things get weird. His legal team appears to be attacking the California OSHA report on the lab incident by pointing out that its author was involved in a murder plot as a teenager and lied about it to investigators (falsus in uno. . .). After some confusion about whether this was even the same person, word is now that the investigator has suddenly resigned from his position as a public safety commissioner. So perhaps Harran’s lawyers are on to something.
But on to what, exactly? I can understand this as a legal tactic. It’s not a very honorable one, but it’s been said that lawyers will do anything for you that can be done while wearing a nice suit (that’s their ethical boundary). Their job is to exonerate their client, and they will do pretty much anything that leads to that result. Will this? Doubt can be cast on the personal history of the Cal OSHA investigator, for sure, but can it be cast on the report that he wrote? Chemjobber’s guess is that this indicates that plea bargaining isn’t going well, and that seems quite believable to me.
So that’s the state of things now. There will be more, perhaps a lot more, the way this case is going so far. Whether it all will lead to a just outcome depends on what you think justice is, and how it might be served here. And whether any of it will keep someone in the future from being killed by a dangerous reagent that they did not appear ready to use, I have no idea. The longer all this goes on, and the more convoluted it gets, the more I wonder about that.

20 comments on “The Sangji/UCLA/Harran Case: Now Officially a Mess”

  1. MolecularGeek says:

    Worrying about the defense team using a dishonorable tactic is unfair, IMHO. The State of California, as represented by the local district attorney went for a felony eligible conviction in this case for reasons that have little to do with public safety and a lot to do with publicity and political gain. When the prosecution tries to sandbag a defendant that way, and then UC throws Harran under the bus to avoid being caught up in the trial, the defense team is obligated to not give up anything without a fight. And, in all honesty, would you want to be indicted on the statement of someone who admitted to committing murder and then lied about it on their job application? An adversarial system seems unfair and wasteful until you’re the one being sent through it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Justice on a technicality is still justice.

  3. Chemjobber says:

    Thanks for linking, Derek.
    With regards to “UCLA throwing Harran under the bus”, it should be noted that all of their public statements, from the chancellor down, have been strongly in support of Professor Harran. They have also paid (and continue to pay) for his defense team, which seems to be doing a darn good job of making the prosecution look bad.

  4. TeddyZ says:

    It has been my experience in industry that personnel in the lab care about safety only care about safety when the boss is around and LOOKING for safety. When our mgrs started coming around, safety was taken more seriously. A paperwork heavy process is simply for UCLA to say we had procedures in place, they didn’t follow them, not our fault. Only when the Provost makes unannounced safety checks on labs will labs start to really be safe.
    think about this: How many accompanying pictures in C&ENews or similar mag shows people without gloves, or even eyewear? But they always have shiny white labcoat with name of company clearly legible.

  5. NoDrugsNoJobs says:

    #1 Molecular Geek, 100% Spot-On, the prosecution is out for Prof Harran’s hide and nothing short of a 100% effort on Harran’s behalf should be expected.

  6. Sili says:

    falsus in uno

    I didn’t know that one, but it’s a nice counterpoint to the genetic fallacy.

  7. Gordon says:

    Whatever the outcome of the trial, Prof Harran’s name will be just as radioactive as Prof Sames’. Grad students will think twice about joining his lab, and who will invite that man as a seminar speaker?

  8. Gordon says:

    More thoughts: the employer is duty-bound to defend its employee against criminal charges, but UCLA are going well overboard, seeing what the defense team is doing.
    Paperwork is useless against poor laboratory technique and poor attitude towards safety. Signing paperwork that one must wear proper clothing in the lab never made anyone leave the fluffy polyester sweater at home.

  9. Morten G says:

    Pretty sure that more paperwork that gets in the way of doing actual science will simply drown out the health and safety that doesn’t get in the way of doing science.
    UCLA already had procedures in place to avoid people dying. Why would adding more of those procedures be of benefit?

  10. RB Woodweird says:

    My favorite part of the story was the way that Ms. Sangji rose from the grave upon hearing that the OSHA investigator had done something wrong 27 years ago.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Morten is absolutely right – my grad school had an excellent safety program on paper, but in reality, nothing was enforced and each professor’s lab was his own independent fiefdom.

  12. dearieme says:

    I used to get collywobbles about lab safety for research students. I’d send them to the right courses, indoctrinate them in my own safety principles (Rule I: do not do lab work when you are tired), insist on lab coats and glasses being worn,and so forth. And then I’d drop into a lab and find an intelligent youngster doing something bloody stupid – something so stupid that it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to warn against it.

  13. Johnny says:

    Dupont has what I think is the most effective safety program I know of, which is to assign responsibility for safety at line management. In other words, if a bench scientist had a safety incident or poor lab practices, it is his/her boss’s fault, and there will be penalties (basically kiss your bonus goodbye). The reason safety gets no respect in academia is that there are no consequences for poor behavior.

  14. Anonymous says:

    DuPont has a punitive, “gotcha” safety culture from what I’ve heard, with people snitching each other out for minor offenses as retaliation for some unrelated beef. If you get hurt there, your best bet is to put your hand in your pocket for the rest of the day, then go to the doctor that night and pretend you hurt yourself at home – otherwise you’ll get fired.
    I agree that academia’s reward/punishment system is the reason for the lack of attention to safety – it’s all about productivity, so if safety precautions slow you down, it’s reasonable to conclude you should skip them and get more results to show the prof.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I find this whole episode very disturbing, and I remain surprised there aren’t a larger number of serious lab accidents. Although we’re each responsible for our own actions, the educational and training institutions need become an environment wherein we learn which actions are good and which are bad. Isn’t that what a university should be doing anyway? Passing laws and more rules isn’t going to help enough: professors need to take a proactive role in fostering better lab techniques. We chemists need to promote a safer/better/more productive environment. We need to want to do it, professors and supervisors need to want to have it done, and they have to want to be a part of it. More laws and rules aren’t going to do this on their own (although they may help in prosecutions?).
    My graduate experience was not at all sufficient in providing me with the necessary skills, and from what I gather from many of my colleagues, not at all atypical. I went to an Ivy league institution, where I thought I would receive excellent technical training. My “adviser” initially assigned a 5th-year grad student to help me. When I approached this individual, he just laughed. (Actually, that was probably best: it turned out that he was absolute rubbish. Later we used to read passages of his thesis out loud for comedic effect.) My “adviser” never – not once – checked to see if I had any clue what I was doing, or what I should be concentrating on, or where I needed more expertise.
    I eventually learned, but long afterward, and mostly by trial and error. I’m lucky that my errors didn’t lead to injuries of myself or those around me. My heart goes out to the family and friends of Sangji. It can be (and has been) argued that “she should have known better”, and honestly, she should have. BUT – she should have been taught better, her abilities should have in some way been assessed, and somebody – her professor or a supervisory colleague – should have been present enough to have been able to keep an eye on a new graduate student. I hope the incoming generation of professors do a better job than the last

  16. R says:

    “Dupont has what I think is the most effective safety program I know of, which is to assign responsibility for safety at line management. In other words, if a bench scientist had a safety incident or poor lab practices, it is his/her boss’s fault, and there will be penalties (basically kiss your bonus goodbye).”
    Johnny, I don’t know if you worked at DuPont, but I did for 15 years. In my former business unit, the safety culture was lousy, at best. The absolute worse part of it was the ‘responsibility for safety at line management’ set-up. This, in practice, turned into making certain that no one fucked up the bosses’ bonuses, which easily made up 25-40% of the bosses’ yearly take-home pay.
    So people hid their injuries, even serious ones. Like the technician who did his best to hide a broken foot. Or the person with a smashed finger who wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital. Or the secretary who got up from her desk, caught her ankle, fell over and broke her hip. They let her go to the hospital – and while she was there, changed her status to ‘retired’ so it wouldn’t count as an on-the-job injury. That should give you a flavor of what it was like to work there.
    The only real safety training was the program that the lab technicians put together themselves, and that luckily the lab management didn’t try to squash. It was actually quite effective.
    I don’t know what it will take to get professors to change their ways. If the NIHand NSF make grant money contingent on lab safety, that might help, or it might create the DuPont syndrome, where everyone conspires to hide injuries and near-misses.
    In the end, sadly, I think the only thing that will work is the threat of going to jail.

  17. keitje says:

    “Lawyers will do just about anything to get results”. Sounds like management and scientist in pharma to me.

  18. bitter pill says:

    @14-according to a friend who worked at Dupont, you could not put your hand in your pocket. He told me they were not allowed to walk around with hands in pockets because if they tripped, they would not have their hands out to catch themselves.

  19. Old Timer says:

    I’d invite Harran to give a talk. He does great science!

  20. William Osler says:

    Question for discussion. Most of us have worked in a lab that did not follow safety procedures. Some had policies they ignored, some just had no policy.
    When someone dies due to that behavior, who and how should someone be held accountable?
    Should administration be held accountable? What level: CEO, COO, Dean, dept head?
    How do we advise our staff, students to act when they end up in such a lab?

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