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Research and Safety – Chaos and Order

Posted by Matt Segal on Jan 15, 2020 8:45:00 AM

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If it feels like your research program is seconds away from spinning out of control, you're not alone. For many institutions, finding a balance between research and safety is a never-ending struggle.

On the one hand, academic research thrives when it’s at the edge of chaos. Unorthodox requests are commonplace, and you often must bend over backwards to accommodate them whenever possible. On the other hand, safety programs rely on rules, structure, and order to mitigate risk and prevent harm.

In this article, we'll examine some of the reasons why balancing research and safety is so difficult (if you find yourself struggling to approach a specific issue, you can check out our article on solving open-ended problems). When university leaders and EHS professionals share a mutual understanding of the environment in which they’re operating, they are able to work together towards a better and more sustainable solution for both research and for safety. 

The PI is always right

One reason researchers are given so much leeway has to do with the way institutional research programs – and institutions themselves – receive funding.

State- and federally-funded research grants are an important source of funding for many institutions. In 2013, the federal government invested $24.6 billion in research grants for higher education – a third of total federal spending on higher education programs, and the second largest spending category behind federal Pell grants (according to a Pew analysis). Additionally, states invested $10.1 billion in state research, agricultural, and medical education appropriations.

Even with such a significant investment, research awards are extremely competitive. Often, a PIs and researchers need to make dissatisfying compromises in the direction of their research in order to make discoveries that are “publishable” as opposed to the research that they find sincerely interesting or important. All told, the pressure on researchers to find ways to secure funding can be immense.

Of course, institutions rely on these grants as well.

With so much of their funding derived from sponsored research, institutions may be reluctant to place significant limitations on principal investigators and researchers. Supporting PIs in their work and accommodating their requests – however unorthodox– is paramount to ensure the financial stability of the institution. This means more than simply providing them with equipment and materials – it means giving them as much freedom as possible without putting them at risk.

Freedom of research matters

Scientific freedom is a prerequisite for successful research. The American Association for the Advancement of Science defines scientific freedom as “the freedom to engage in scientific inquiry, pursue and apply knowledge, and communicate openly.”

For PIs and researchers to do meaningful work, they need autonomy over their experiments. Too many rules and regulations can stifle discovery. Without room to take risks and pursue unconventional ideas, scientific integrity suffers. Therefore, researchers can quickly become resentful of compliance exercises that create unnecessary bottlenecks and interfere with their work.

At the same time, institutions have learned a hard lesson about the importance of safety. The consequences of prioritizing scientific freedom over safe science range from minor to life-altering injuries to loss of property, litigation, reputation damage, and in the most serious cases, catastrophic damage to an entire building or loss of life.

Can anyone really be surprised that researchers and safety leaders find themselves at odds as they attempt to secure and protect their interests? Safety leaders need order. In keeping with the Hierarchy of Risk, they want to eliminate risks before they ever materialize. Researchers, on the other hand, must aggressively hunt for new discoveries in order to successfully compete for grant awards in the increasingly competitive funding environment.

Science and safety can coexist

The challenge for safety professionals is to figure out how to impose order on the chaos of research without overly restricting it.

For one, institutional leaders, EHS experts, and researchers alike must recognize that it’s not an either/or proposition. Supporting discovery doesn’t have to mean abandoning safety or overlooking hazards. Being safe doesn’t mean you can’t perform the research you want to perform.

Research shows that safety interventions promote productivity through reduced absenteeism, as well as improved performance, creativity, and motivation. In the laboratory, thoughtfully designed safety programs can actually encourage autonomy and scientific exploration.

It is critical to equip researchers with the right tools, training, and resources to work safely and efficiently. The pace of the ever-changing research environment makes a thorough and effective safety support program particularly important – there’s a lot to keep up with, and it can quickly become burdensome if not handled properly.

Done right, safety shouldn’t inhibit scientific freedom – it should support it and help it reach a sustainable pace. Striking the balance between these two extremes isn’t easy, but it is necessary to bridge the gap between research and safety.

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