AAAS rejects fellowship of UCLA professor who willfully violated lab safety standards

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) deserves credit for standing with worker safety and victims of egregious safety violations. The group’s Section on Chemistry voted not to move forward with the nomination of UCLA professor Patrick Harran as an AAAS fellow. They made the announcement yesterday. Harran has four criminal felony charges pending against him for willfully violating workplace safety standards at his UCLA laboratory. Those charges were brought by the Los Angeles County District Attorney (DA) following a criminal investigation into the 2009 death of lab assistant Sheri Sangji, 23, from horrific burns. In a negotiated settlement with the DA, the criminal charges remain will remain in place until 2019 while (and if) Harran complies with the agreement.

UCLA’s press office had announced on November 25 that Harran was selected as an AAAS fellow. It noted in its news release that fellows are chosen:

“…for their distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.”

Sheri Sangji’s family expressed “shock, dismay, and utter disbelief” when they learned of the distinction.

“For an organization that states as its mission a goal to ‘promote and defend the integrity of science and its use,’ we ask how you can reconcile this laudable aim with a decision to honor a man responsible for the death of a young scientist.”

“…Our family can only assume that the Chemistry Section Steering Committee was not aware of these facts when reviewing Patrick Harran’s nomination to the fellowship of the AAAS.”

They asked AAAS to withdraw the award.

Others (here, here (myself included)) wrote to AAAS’s CEO (and former member of Congress) Rush Holt, PhD asking also for the distinction to be withdrawn:

“As a premiere scientific organization, AAAAS has an obligation to renounce individuals who disregard the health and safety of their staff, students and the public.”

One AAAS fellow and PhD chemist, Neal Langerman, wrote to AAAS:

“[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.”

Stories in the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets drew attention to the matter.

On December 18, AAAS’s Chemistry Section received approval

“…to conduct a complete re-evaluation of Dr. Harran’s nomination after it became apparent that an initial review of nomination materials had not included all relevant information. Members of the nomination reviewing committee recently became aware of a 2008 case involving the death of a technician in the UCLA laboratory of Dr. Harran.”

That review led to AAAS’s announcement this week to reject Harran’s selection as a fellow.  Moreover, the organization said it will be considering changes to its review process for fellows.

I’m impressed and appreciate AAAS’s swift action to withdraw Harran’s selection as fellow. AAAS deserves credit for its swift action. I can’t help but think that those responsible for the decision were moved by her family’s words:

“We ask you to take this principled stance, not only out of respect for Sheri and her suffering, for the integrity of scientific research, or to maintain the prestige of your award, but also for the far reaching implications your stance will have for laboratory safety.”

Kudos to AAAS.

A photo to remind me there’s a face, friends and family for every victim of a work-related fatality.

sheri sangji soccer

Sheri Sangji celebrating soccer victory.