AAAS Fellowship selection raises questions

Chemistry lab

Credit: Jean-Pierre/Wikimedia Commons

What makes a scientist worthy of an honor from a major scientific organization? Is excellent research enough, or must the person also exemplify a high standard of behavior? 

These questions sparked widespread discussion following the 16 November announcement that AAAS named chemist Patrick Harran of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), an AAAS Fellow. (AAAS publishes Science Careers, which has reported on the criminal case arising from the 2009 death of research assistant Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji from burns sustained while working in Harran’s lab.) The association bestows this honorary title on members “whose efforts on behalf of the advancement of science or its applications are scientifically or socially distinguished,” according to the AAAS website. Nominated by people in their own disciplines, 347 fellows were chosen this year.

On 14 December, after critical comments in several publications, at a number of blogs, on Twitter, and in a number of protesting letters, AAAS issued a statement that its Chemistry Section has asked the “governing Council … to allow reconsideration of the nomination of Patrick Harran as an elected Fellow.”

On 14 December, after critical comments in several publications, at a number of blogs, on Twitter, and in a number of protesting letters, AAAS issued a statement that its Chemistry Section has asked the “governing Council … to allow reconsideration of the nomination of Patrick Harran as an elected Fellow.” The section made the request “after it became apparent that an initial review of Dr. Harran’s nomination materials had not included all relevant information. … An additional announcement will be made as soon as the relevant AAAS governance bodies issue a final decision in this case.” Harran did not respond to requests for comment.

The first American professor ever indicted for lab safety violations, Harran faced felony charges for violations of state safety laws. In a 2014 agreement with the Los Angeles district attorney, Harran accepted 5 years of court supervision as well as “responsibility for the conditions” in the lab and a prohibition on making “any public statement denying responsibility,” but he did not plead guilty to the charges. During the lengthy legal proceedings that preceded the settlement, a number of scientists expressed the view that Harran had simply done what many academic chemists do, and had been prosecuted unjustly for being unlucky.

In response to Harran’s selection as an AAAS Fellow, chemist and lab safety expert Neal Langerman, himself a fellow of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and its Division of Chemical Health and Safety, wrote in a letter sent in early December to the AAAS Board of Directors that Harran “is a brilliant organic chemist,” but “some singular failures are so significant as to override all other considerations. Contributing to the death of an employee of whom he was the direct supervisor rises to this level.” Other letters of protest to AAAS included one from Sangji’s labor union at UCLA, the University Professional and Technical Employees Communications Workers of America (UPTE-CWA) Local 9119; another signed by several dozen academics and occupational safety experts; and one from Sangji’s family. “Awards and recognition from esteemed organizations such as the AAAS are in essence endorsements for the recipients of these awards. Scientists and researchers look upon the individuals thus honored as role models,” wrote Sangji’s sister and brother on behalf of their parents and other relatives. “We respectfully request that you refuse to honor … unsafe science.”

Some key members of the scientific community believed that Harran merits the fellowship. As noted in the AAAS statement, “three existing AAAS Fellows” nominated Harran for the honor, and the section leadership approved him. In addition, he was “ratified by elected members of the AAAS Council, without interference or influence by AAAS staff.” A 7 December article in the UCLA student newspaper, the Daily Bruin, quoted AAAS Director of Public Programs Ginger Pinholster as saying that the AAAS administrative members who oversaw the selection process were not aware of the charges against him.

Although AAAS staff didn’t know about the charges, “[i]t strains credulity to believe that members of the AAAS chemistry section … were unaware” of the criminal case, “which was closely followed by chemists around the globe,” write UPTE-CWA 9119 President Jelger Kalmijn and David LeGrande, CWA’s director of occupational health and safety, in their letter. Langerman, who believes that a good safety record is integral to meritorious science and should be a prerequisite for any honor, notes that ACS asks a question about safety performance in nominations for its national prizes. Though “pro forma,” such a checkbox would have called attention to the Sangji case and raised the question of suitability much earlier in Harran’s nomination process. Both the letters from the union and the group of academics and safety experts suggest that AAAS revise its selection criteria “to avert,” as the academics phrase it, “a similar error in the future.”

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