Sunday, May 4, 2014

Scientific Regulation and the death of Sherri Shangji

Robert Conquest's first law of politics states everyone is conservative about what they know.  While there are several areas where this is BS, one area where it appears to often be true is in the area of regulation.  People who favor regulation of other industries might disfavor regulation of their industry since they understand the cost:benefit trade-off in their area of expertise.  This was one of the main thoughts I had reading this story on how regulation is stifling science.  Left-wing scientists who will favor regulation of other industries suddenly have problems when a governing or administrative agency wants to apply oversight to them.  This is something I have seen before.  I remember being enormously frustrated at a talk by a Nobel laureate, in which he stated the best way for science to get done was for university administrators to just stay out of the way of its scientists.  It's a sentiment I generally agree with, but it would be nice if people extended this courtesy to other industries.

The issue of science and regulation in relation to laboratory safety is something that came to the forefront with the death of Sherri Shangji, outlined here.  To sum it up, Sherri Shangji was a laboratory technician who burned to death from mistakes made while conducting an experiment.  Her principal investigator, Patrick Harran, is currently facing criminal charges for safety violations.  Some good has come from this tragedy.  Laboratory safety regulations in academia were laughably non-existent before.  Now, most academic institutions have realized that something has to be in place, and are making the proper changes.

As for the criminal charges Patrick Harran is facing, I can't help but think many people who would have cheered a CEO or small business owner being held responsible in a similar manner are suddenly upset when someone they can identify with is the one facing charges.

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