Not long afterward, it cited and fined the university for violations of state law, reinforced by an exhaustive — and excoriating — 95-page investigative report on the incident. Experts say that the resulting mishaps are no more “accidents”— that is, random and unpredictable — than is being thrown from a car in a crash while riding without a seat belt.
Kenneth Roy, chief science safety compliance adviser for the National Science Teachers Association, frames it in terms of his own experience: With “some of the crap that went on in the chem labs and the physics labs” while he was working toward his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, “I don’t know how I’m alive,” he says, adding, “I look back and say, ‘Oh, my God, how could they be allowed to do that?
Yet this does not imply close university supervision.
Supporting its programs and payrolls through grants, each lab functions essentially as an independent “small business” that uses undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and technicians as an inexpensive labor force, says the safety expert Langerman.
It cited “preliminary information” on 120 incidents in the United States over the preceding decade suggesting that at least one significant incident occurs in a university laboratory every month.
CSB declared itself “greatly concerned about the frequency of academic laboratory incidents in the United States” and about “a number of” safety issues it has identified as “relevant to academia as a whole.” But no move toward more meticulous accounting resulted.
Only “nominally subordinate” to department chairs, deans, and other administrators, scientists with grants (generally referred to as principal investigators, or PIs) can “in practice do pretty much whatever they want so long as they do not stray too far into some other fief’s territory,” Mc Croskey wrote.
Beyond that, successful lab chiefs hold the trump card of being able to move to a competing university.
Productivity, defined as accumulating data that can be transformed into as many journal articles as possible, is the “cultural imperative,” says a 2014 National Academies report.
Academic culture thus encourages each lab chief to operate rather like a feudal “fief,” says the CSB report, citing communication researcher James Mc Croskey.