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Link funding to lab safety, Sheri Sangji’s sister says

“If laboratory safety is incorporated into the criteria for research funding, safety will instantly become the first priority of universities and principal investigators—as it should be,” Naveen Sangji writes in an email to Science Careers. “Scientists should care the most about the safety of researchers, and it is our hope that the scientific community will advocate for this change.” Naveen has been tirelessly making this argument ever since her sister Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji died in 2009, at the age of 23, from injuries sustained in a fire in the University of California, Los Angeles, lab of chemistry professor Patrick Harran.

Naveen’s latest effort is a call for the American Chemical Society (ACS) to press for rules making safety a condition of research funding. Sheri died in “a tragic, foreseeable, and completely preventable incident,” Naveen told a session at the annual meeting of the ACS in Boston, on 17 August, according to a transcript of her remarks that she shared with Science Careers. She sees some “hope that the future may be different for other young scientists” because of the efforts of many people devoted to improving lab safety, she said in her talk, but “even the most far-reaching and best-intentioned individual efforts can flounder in the face of grounded, institutional resistance to change.” As a physician now doing a surgical residency, she knows something about how scientific institutions work.

[E]ven the most far-reaching and best-intentioned individual efforts can flounder in the face of grounded, institutional resistance to change.

–Naveen Sangji

Given this reality, she sees “two main avenues for affecting change. The first is criminal prosecution” such as that brought against Harran, which yielded inconclusive results that disappointed the Sangji family. “The second, and possibly of greater relevance at this moment,” she continued, “is the tying of grant funding to the safety records of Principal Investigators [sic]. … In an environment where only 1 in 6 NIH [National Institutes of Health] proposals are getting funded, at a time [when] the NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has called the NIH funding outlook the worst it has been in 50 years, why should these limited tax-payer funds go to those who conduct unsafe science? Are there not other scientists out there who are more deserving recipients of these funds?” Adding safety as an incentive would quickly raise safety standards in labs across the country, she said at the meeting. 

But enacting such a change will take the support of the scientific community, which thus far has been largely silent on the issue, she said. And so, “in support of the young scientists who have lost their lives to laboratory injuries, in support of the basic scientific principles of honesty and integrity,” she called on “the ACS Board for a pledge that they will write an open letter to … Collins, and the HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] Secretary Ms. [Sylvia Mathews] Burwell, advocating for a principal investigator’s safety record to be considered in the peer review process.”

Naveen believes that such a change would have a broad effect, because “what the NIH adopts, other funding agencies will follow.” “Tie safety and funding together, and change will happen overnight, … [and it] will help prevent other families from suffering the way ours has,” she said.

Her point about linking funding and safety has been made by others numerous times. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board recommended this approach in its groundbreaking 2011 safety report entitled Texas Tech University: Laboratory Explosion. In 2014, the National Academies’ National Research Council released a report, Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research, that considered establishing such a requirement, then waffled because the idea is “controversial,” demonstrating the “grounded, institutional resistance to change” that Naveen mentioned in her talk. As we have argued in this space, however, NIH funding requirements have drastically strengthened protections for research subjects and laboratory animals. Why should there be any controversy about whether the students, postdocs, technicians and others who do the potentially dangerous work deserve the strongest possible protections as well?

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