Avoiding Conflict in the Lab

February 19, 2009

ScienceBear has a fairly provocative post up over at the cave. I was struck by the last section because it touches on scientific errors and fraud. ScienceBear observed that members of the laboratory were curiously worried about arousing the ire of the Boss over trivialities:

I recently noticed we were out of a particular item in lab and asked if anyone had ordered it, the answer is always no, even though we could have been out for days. This is the same response if something goes wrong with lab equipment….
yes, everyone had noticed but no one wanted to bother Dr Boss for the fear she would be angry. I was at a loss for words. I put in work orders on the computers, placed an order for ink cartridges and alerted Dr Boss to the problems all in the same day.
This same fear of punishment for finding something not going as planned carries over into everything we do in lab. No one wants to say we are out of something or that their experiments aren’t going as they should. One student actually continued a failed experiment for two months without alerting Dr Boss to the fact they were having a problem (she was not pleased that he didn’t bring this up during a weekly meeting and wasted time and valuable reagents/antibodies).

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I hate jury duty. No, not because it adds yet more stuff into a fairly busy schedule as a parent-scientist. I love the theory of jury duty and the opportunity for public service and engagement of citizens in our public life. I do. What I hate with a burning vengeance is the system whereby truth seeking and the establishment of fact are a distant eleventh to the nonfactual, emotional manipulation of the jury to see the matter of guilt in a particular direction.
A panel convened by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science has concluded that the forensic sciences need a serious overhaul in the US (full report).
What took us so long?

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