I would guess that most people view laboratory research as a reasonably safe job. It’s certainly not without hazards–toxic chemicals, fire and explosive risks, and in some cases, exposure to radiation or infectious diseases. For most of these, we take (or at least, are supposed to take) precautions to minimize these risks. We don personal protective equipment when working with chemicals and biohazards. We utilize shielding when working with radiation.
But how often do we consider security in our workplaces? Perhaps if you do animal (especially non-human primate) research, you might think of this more often than the average scientist, given the extreme tactics targeting scientists conducting animal research. And if you do stop to think about this, it might make you a little nervous, especially if you work in academia. Because at many academic institutions, security is lax at best and nonexistent at worst. At my graduate institute, you could walk into any research building, any lab, during “regular business hours” without being stopped. The only time security was tightened was when (a) PETA was planning protests or (b) POTUS was visiting the neighboring children’s hospital. At my current institute, you have to flash your ID or sign in at the main entrance, but generally, once you’re in, you can go just about anywhere you want. At both institutes, theoretically the only way to access the buildings after hours was/is through card access–but there’s usually at least one way in that isn’t locked.
Perhaps more disconcerting, though, is the failure of campus police and individual departments to alert students and staff to more generic security concerns. Recent events have reignited my furor about this. The space where I work is shared by about half a dozen labs. From what I’ve gathered, a postdoc in one of these other labs had a rather heated confrontation with hir adviser–so heated that the adviser terminated hir immediately, called in campus police, and had the postdoc’s access to the lab revoked. All this information came 24+ hours after the catalytic event. The rest of us had noticed that we now had to use swipe our IDs through the card reader to access the labs, but no one knew what was going on until comments and details filtered down from the lab in question. My issue here is this: If you feel threatened enough by an individual to have your lab space put on lockdown, don’t you think it might be a good idea to apprise those your lab shares space with? Because I know this postdoc. If s/he had approached while I was on my way in, I would have held the door for hir. It’s not like I’m letting a stranger into the lab.
And this highlights a broader problem with security at academic institutions, which is they like to keep all the dirty little secrets, the problems, the indiscretions quiet. They seem to prefer keeping their image clean over looking out for the safety of the people who work their. Perhaps this is an overly cynical view, but I have heard too many things, witnessed too many lapses to trust that this is a simple oversight. It is a calculated response by the institution and department, and one that has the potential to place students, trainees, and staff at risk–and that I fear already has. We are expected to take appropriate precautions in our research to minimize the risks of the hazards we face. So why aren’t institutions providing the information and the resources to minimize the security risks that are there?