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Taken for Granted: Making a Federal Case of Young Scientists' Concerns

The right to petition the national government for redress of grievances is one of Americans' most basic and, potentially, most effective freedoms. Activists for two issues of interest to young scientists -- lab safety and postdoc unionization -- have recently exercised that right, bringing their causes to powerful national officials. Given that federal law and regulations shape much of what happens in the labs that do government-funded research, such steps could, at least in theory, make a difference.

But progress is far from assured, because making a difference is hard. Changes in federal rules usually emerge, when they do, from fierce struggles among competing interest groups that rage behind the high-flown verbiage of public occasions. To have a chance to succeed, those who care about issues must put them forward strategically, energetically, and persistently.

I have colleagues who say, 'Why don't I quit science and work at Home Depot? I hear they're a pretty good employer.' And the sad thing is, they're only half joking.

--Ludmila Tyler

In that spirit, Naveen Sangji, sister of Sheri Sangji, the technician who last year died of injuries from lab fire at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, made the issue of lab safety part of the official observances in April that marked Workers Memorial Day in Washington, D.C. Annual commemorations of job-related deaths have taken place for years, across the nation and abroad. This year, those commemorations coincided with the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and, for the first time, yielded a Presidential Proclamation. OSHA, President Barack Obama stated in the proclamation, "promise[s] American workers the right to a safe workplace and require[s] employers to provide safe conditions."

Then, on 30 April in Berkeley, California, UC postdoc Ludmila Tyler and other witnesses testified at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor about the stalled negotiations for a first contract between UC and its postdoc union. Union members' complaints to their congressional representatives spurred the hearing. Whatever one's view of postdoc unionization, the event was significant because the testimony brought the broader realities of young scientists' work lives to the attention of important federal lawmakers.

Taking issues to a new level

These events indicate a new level of activism on these issues. But by the standards of big-league influence mongering, they barely register. The interests of academic science are represented by various well-funded and experienced lobbying operations supported by research universities, medical schools, professional and scientific societies, and others. Early-career scientists, however, generally play no role in formulating the policies of these organizations, and their interests often differ from those of established scientists.

As if to illustrate that point, Representative George Miller (D–CA), who chaired the 30 April hearing and represents the congressional district just north of Berkeley, commented that "as chairman of the [House] Education [and Labor] Committee and chair of the Democratic Policy Committee, I meet all of the time with leaders from the research-university community." The interests of the young scientists at these universities, on the other hand, are so poorly represented at those meetings that he and the two other Education and Labor Committee members present, fellow Democrats Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, who also represent Bay Area districts, seemed unfamiliar with very basic features of postdocs' situation.

Tyler's brave and poignant description of the low pay, insecurity, chancy benefits, difficulty securing maternity leave, and general discouragement that many postdocs endure was effective. "I have colleagues who say, 'Why don't I quit science and work at Home Depot? I hear they're a pretty good employer,' " she told the congressional representatives. "And the sad thing is, they're only half joking." The members of Congress seemed surprised and, according to Miller, "deeply concerned" and "disappointed" by this and other testimony -- which indicates how effectively the viewpoints of the research universities and today's established scientists have dominated the discussion and how little attention tomorrow's scientists' concerns have received.

The lawmakers, two of them UC alumni, all expressed chagrin. Miller in particular seemed flummoxed by Tyler's presentation. He mentioned briefly that what she revealed appeared to contradict the widely assumed scientist shortage. "It's almost as if we're toying with some of the brightest, most talented, and skilled people in our society," he mused in dismay. "This raises serious questions about the underlying ... policies. ... If we are going to subsidize the acceleration of America's excellence and talents on the back of these very talented individuals, something is very upside down in the university community, very upside down. ... The policy question around the use and abuse of these grants is a larger issue for the Congress." Yet, UC is far from the worst university employer. Before the UC postdocs voted to unionize, the UC system engaged in a difficult and ultimately successful effort to provide decent, uniform benefits to all UC postdocs.

Highlighting safety

Naveen Sangji also spoke frankly during a Washington meeting between relatives of deceased workers and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. In a prepared statement, she told Solis of the "atrocious working conditions in the UCLA laboratories [that] assured that [Sheri] would not fulfill her dreams" and explained how "UCLA broke ... safety rules that could have protected her life."

Representative George Miller (D–CA)

Representative George Miller (D–CA)

"Laboratories continue to remain unsafe," she went on. "Why? Because there are no real consequences for employers for endangering workers. The penalty for Sheri's death" -- $32,000 -- is "hardly an effective deterrent," she said.

The meeting with Solis was one of several official events Naveen participated in during her stay in the nation's capital. Others included a hearing at the Rayburn House Office Building by the Education and Labor Committee's Workforce Protections Subcommittee about the proposed Protecting America's Workers Act (H.R. 2067) (PAWA). During the session, Naveen and others displayed pictures of their lost loved ones.

If enacted, PAWA would bring public employees, including state university workers like Sheri, under the protection of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which currently excludes them. (It would not, however, cover students doing experiments in those same labs.) The law would also increase the penalties for violating safety regulations, broaden the rights of victims' families to get information, and better defend whistleblowers against retribution. (Miller also raised this last point, the vulnerability of workers who speak out about abuses, in a letter he sent on 11 May to UC President Mark Yudof. After urging Yudof to bring the postdoc union negotiations to a speedy resolution, Miller praised Tyler's statements and pointedly reminded Yudof of the "prohibitions against any form of retaliation as a result of testimony before Congress.")

Naveen, finally, attended the dedication of the National Workers Memorial at the National Labor College in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. Sheri's name and death date are carved on one of the commemorative bricks included in the monument.

Hard realities

For all the pomp and dismay of a somber and enlightening week, "if" and "would" remain the operative words in the efforts at influence. A very large distance separates a committee hearing from a law on the books, and a deep chasm divides a sympathetic hearing by a Cabinet secretary from effective protection of workers. Several events soon after the Berkeley hearing made clear the vagaries of the political process. On 12 May Chairman Miller pushed through the House an amendment to the then-pending reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, which contains funding for a number of federal research agencies. The amendment aimed to speed up negotiations between universities and researchers' unions.

The very next day, however, a House vote cast doubt over the prospects for passage of COMPETES reauthorization, and the following week, the bill was defeated over Republicans concerns about spending and partisan election-year maneuvering involving the irrelevant issue of pornography. Supporters vowed to continue the fight for passage, the science lobbies geared up for the effort, and the bill, including the amendment, finally passed the House on 28 May. That does not mean that the amendment becomes law, however, as America COMPETES still has not passed the Senate.

Even more fundamental than the passage of a particular bill is the question of what, exactly, the "deeply concerned" Miller and his colleagues understand to be the policy problems involved in universities' treatment of postdocs. The lawmakers' statements at the Berkeley hearing make clear that they could use a good deal more education about the realities of life in the nation's university labs. Was Miller troubled by specific transgressions of particular employers or by the deep and pervasive dysfunctional nature of the "pyramid" system of academic research, which depends on the systematic exploitation of cheap graduate student and postdoc labor? Solving the first problem would be straightforward, but solving the second would require a fundamental reform of the system and dislocations in practices that are dear to powerful interest groups.

Effective advocacy at the federal level takes relentless, unremitting lobbying, which is not cheap. Impecunious early-career scientists and lab workers can't match the lobbying power of more established groups and will need to do a great deal more before they stand a chance of effectively advancing their interests in the high-stakes Washington fray. But the April events suggest that maybe -- just maybe -- we are witnessing the first glimmerings of coming change.

Photo (top): chadh