Improving graduate education in chemistry

Earlier this week, the American Chemical Society released a report on “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences.” ACS president and University of Wisconsin, Madison, chemistry professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri commissioned the report, charging the commission with defining the purposes of graduate education in the chemical sciences and what steps should be taken to ensure that programs “address important societal issues as well as the needs and aspirations of graduate students.”

One of the five report conclusions was:

Academic chemical laboratories must adopt best safety practices. Such practices have led to a remarkably good record of safety in the chemical industry and should be leveraged.

The commission could easily have folded safety under another conclusion:  “Current educational opportunities for graduate students…do not provide sufficient preparation for their careers after graduate school.” Clearly the commission members felt strongly that laboratory safety needed to be called out as a separate point.

The report notes that “students’ lack of familiarity with best practices in laboratory safety … represents a significant gap, regardless of the type of employment the student ultimately pursues,” whether students are looking at academic, industrial, or government positions. The report emphasizes that institutions should develop a culture of working safely rather than just following rules and regulations. In that respect, it jumps off from and references the ACS Safety Culture Task Force report Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions released earlier this year. And the report recommends that ACS develop a comprehensive safety curriculum based on best practices.

The report addresses the finances of safety, too:

The costs of safety practices for research should be built into the indirect costs charged by universities; they should be adequate to provide what is needed (including supplies, equipment, skilled personnel, training, and more). The direct-cost budgets of research grants do not seem to provide the appropriate mechanism for funding safety measures. The top down approach to handling the costs of safety is imperative to make certain there is uniform implementation of safety practices and hardware across all chemical laboratories of a university and to eliminate conflicts of interests among individual PIs making financial decisions regarding safety implementation in their own laboratories.

The costs of safety practices outside research laboratories, most notably in teaching facilities, are inevitably an institutional responsibility. Suitable standards should govern them, and appropriate mechanisms should fund them.

Based on the University of California’s definition of indirect costs–”those that are better calculated on an institutional basis rather than costed-out by project (e.g. research administration and accounting, purchasing, library, space, maintenance)”–safety definitely should be part of overhead. But who pays for what in academic departments can be the subject of intense debate, so it’s nice to see the ACS commission take a clear stand. The commission included two chancellors and one dean, along with many professors and some industry representatives.

Last but not least, a few quotes from the report on the importance of lab safety in graduate education:

Progress would afford better protection to students and other workers at all academic levels and would better prepare students to meet the natural expectations of their future colleagues and employers.

and

[T]oday’s companies demand safety performance from their employees that far exceeds what students are accustomed to in academic settings. There are many safety skills that are easily taught, such as doing hazard analyses, but the core issue is that students must be “grown” to value safety in a manner that is “bone deep” and can drive the highest level of performance, known as interdependent behavior. This culture of safety is often a surprise to newly hired students. It should not be.

and

[T]here is a demonstrated, strong correlation between occupational safety and operating performance of factories.30 A great many industrial organizations have found safety to be powerfully coupled in a general way to productivity. They are not committed just because a safety culture reduces their exposure to liability, but in much greater degree because a bone-deep safety culture protects their people and because workers who consistently think carefully about what they are doing perform better.

30Veltri, A.; Pagell, M.; Behm, M.; Das, A. A Data-Based Evaluation of the Relationship between Occupational Safety and Operating Performance. Jour. SH&E Res. 2007, 4, feature 2.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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