University research in the Age of Protest

  • #1
Vanadium 50
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On Monday evening, student protestors entered an engineering building at Stanford and proceeded to barricade and vandalize it. It is unclear whether they broke in or whether (like most university buildings) is normally unlocked during working hours.

According to Stanford's president, "A faculty member whose lab is in the building shared that the research in that lab was sensitive and dangerous to those unfamiliar with the safe operation of the equipment."

That obviously covers a lot of ground. However, university labs have worked with dangerous stuff - lasers, radioactive sources, and a number of toxic chemical: arsine, hydrofluoric acid, mercury compounds, and so forth. Precautions are taken, but the assumption behind them is that only trained people trying to avoid accidents have access. The precautions were never intended to stop an untrained (and possibly malicious) mob.

Further, by blocking egress, the protesting students put the researching students at risk had an evacuation become necessary.

My question therefore is whether on-campus research should be permitted at all, given the risk to students, including those who are neither researchers nor protestors. A cloud of arsine in your dorm, for example, can really ruin your day.

Thoughts?

(Note: I am not arguing the merits of the positions of the protestors, or counter-protestors or counter-counter-protestors ad infiinitum. That's not appropriate for PF, and it's not the subject of this post)
 
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  • #2
I think that on-campus research is important and should not be restricted in any way. Every other position is in my mind a capitulation to violence and stupidity. Such occasions are among the few instances where I support a Darwinistic position. You break into labs? Face the consequences.

You can also consider my point of view from a purely economic point of view: knowledge plus expensive hardware come together at universities. It would be an unforgiveable waste of resources not using them.
 
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  • #3
Yikes.

I don't 100% remember from my university days, but I think that even if the outer building doors were unlocked during business/school hours, the lab entrance doors were locked and not easy to break into...
 
  • #4
My experience is most lab inner doors are easy to break into. Most are glass (to see if there is a problem) and to get in, you break the glass and turn the knob.

The intent is not to make these like bank vault doors - intended to stop a determined expert - but more to signal "don't come in if you don't belong". The reason it is so easy to get past them is the intent is to be able to get someone out if there is trouble.
 
  • #5
Vanadium 50 said:
The reason it is so easy to get past them is the intent is to be able to get someone out if there is trouble.
And that is the reason for my position. Complete elimination of a potential danger because of potential criminals should never be accepted in my mind. I don't know but it would feel like a surrender.
 
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  • #6
In the 1980s-1990s there was a strong local PETA group that often protested and one time broke in a vandalized some animal facilities at the University of Oregon (Eugene). This group was very much personality driven and stopped being active when a particular person left town.
When they broke in, they caused a bunch of damage and some humorously funny stupid things.
  • One was they tried releasing some pigeons but they didn't go far and wanted to come back their home.
  • They also released some white inbred lab rabbits into the "wild" (just off of I-5) where they were observed getting attacked by dogs. So sad. :frown:
It was easy to make fun of them. They were generally uninformed about what they were protesting and some of them wore leather belts.

Fortunately for everyone they didn't get to the real labs where the nasty stuff is kept.
Or scramble our genetic lines or databases.

Everything new got doors with card readers with the money from grants for the new facilities.
Older buildings got outer door card readers along with some interior door card readers. I am kind of surprised that this is not the case everywhere. Any new building budget should include this in their budget. It would be hard to refuse. Older places should be upgraded by the University using the indirect funds they get from each research grant which is supposed to support the funded research. This also would seem difficult to refuse.

A few years after this, I is was involved new designing new fish facilities all over campus and got put on a kind of task force for controlling some other spaces with some local cops and people from the physical plant. It was fun because I always prided myself on being able to break into our house when we got locked out. Because I knew how the buildings were put together I could figure new and devious ways to get in.

The Music department had a lot of instruments and electronics sneaking out. They had no card readers and 4 different entrances which only got locked at night and a lot of classes (with a lot of students) in the same spaces with lots of expensive stuff.
 
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  • #7
We had a similar problem at Stanford Research Institute at an adjoining chemistry department where the ex-spouse of a researcher threatened lives and property. The chem lab had barrels of many different unsecured substances depending on current grants and projects. We shared buildings and facilites at the old campus in Menlo Park.

Our Speech Technology Research lab was relatively benign but we shared space with Vision and Laser Physics who used potentially dangerous electronics and chemical dyes in some experiments. Eye protection required.

SRI secured all building access, introduced individual pass cards and secure readers on doors while adding electronic gates and cameras on the grounds. No mischief ensued that I know, but the open lab vibe that SRI celebrated for years with the local community invited to participate, suffered.
 
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  • #8
I'll just say I have used card readers on glass doors a lot.

By the way, I once advocated an inner lab door system with an automatic override. If it didn't open for your card, you could hit the button, rescan and the door would open. It would also record that you did this and call 911. The reaction was tepid.
 
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  • #9
BillTre said:
The Music department had a lot of instruments and electronics sneaking out. They had no card readers and 4 different entrances which only got locked at night and a lot of classes (with a lot of students) in the same spaces with lots of expensive stuff.
There are diverse and quite subtle ways of introducing music to the greater community. Play it like it is stolen.
 
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  • #10
Vanadium 50 said:
My question therefore is whether on-campus research should be permitted at all, given the risk to students, including those who are neither researchers nor protestors.
Surely the huge expense of moving it all off campus is self-evident. That being said, I know that the University of Michigan has some of its labs outside of town. The University of Tokyo has its physics labs in Chiba and elsewhere. Harvard on the other hand AFAIK still does most if not everything on campus. MIT might be the same way. It's a long way to any large plots of regrettably expensive developable land. I've never heard of any community being devastated by a USA lab leak, so if there's no problem why make a big investment in preventing it? Most research isn't particularly dangerous. The scale is small, that helps a lot. No Ivy League Bhopal as of yet.
 
  • #11
I know of a neuroanatomy lab that had a highly volatile organic solvents used in histology reagents and boxes of slides on a bunch of shelves on the wall. One night they all fell of the wall. Everything busted free of their containers and made a big mess.
They had a mess of useless slides, but everyone was glad the place didn't blow up like some chemistry department where a liter bottle of ether was broken, blew up and destroyed the building (lots of other chemicals involved I guess).
 
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  • #12
Hornbein said:
MIT might be the same way
It is not. Tech Square (nearby) and Bates Lab (need a car).
 
  • #13
Hornbein said:
No Ivy League Bhopal as of yet.
Sure, I doubt we're talking about thousands. But lets pick on arisine - a release could easily kill a dozen people.
 
  • #14
It is not the responsibility of the university to protect people who are breaking the rules.
 
  • #15
Actually much of Harvard science has moved to Allston. They can afford it.
 
  • #16
Allston? When I was there it was a rough neighborhood. Lots of burglaries. Every time I closed a window I hit somebody's hands.
 
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  • #17
Frabjous said:
It is not the responsibility of the university to protect people who are breaking the rules.
Not everyone feels this way. The laws vary from state to state, but in California "he was trespassing" is not an automatic defense.

But what about bystanders? Imagine this scenario - a number of students who are protesting break into a lab doing work of which they disapprove. They start smashing things, in the process releasing a poison gas that kills them, two students in a nearby lab, and one poor schmuck walking past the building at exactly the wrong time.

Is the university not liable for any of these deaths?
 
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  • #18
Vanadium 50 said:
Is the university not liable for any of these deaths?
They are partially liable at the point which they chose not to take any action to stop the vandals.

If this is the first action of the protestors, no liabilities. If the protest has been going on for a while, the university has an obligation to protect the building.
 
  • #19
Frabjous said:
It is not the responsibility of the university to protect people who are breaking the rules.
Even if it is not a well identified responsibility, there are really strong PR reasons to avoid these kind of problems.
Both public and privately funded school survive on money given to them, often out of some consideration of public benefit.
Hurting and killing people, either inadvertently of or not doesn't project a good look.
 
  • #20
Vanadium 50 said:
I'll just say I have used card readers on glass doors a lot.

By the way, I once advocated an inner lab door system with an automatic override. If it didn't open for your card, you could hit the button, rescan and the door would open. It would also record that you did this and call 911. The reaction was tepid.
A secure version of this. With the recent invasions to University property here and the US, a robust, effective system of electronic security plus actual security guards is required.
Occupation of a building and disruption of lectures, research and kit is one thing.
Deliberate harm to students and staff is another and it's worth paying for.
Just my 2p
 
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  • #21
This discussion is what we call "Rechtsgüterabwägung" = balancing legally protected interests. I seriously doubt that we on PF have the juristical competencies to debate this, let alone avoid the obvious!

(Sorry, I don't know the correct translation of "Rechtsgut" or whether the American system even knows this juristical term.)
 
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  • #22
fresh_42 said:
Sorry, I don't know the correct translation of "Rechtsgut"
I'm still struggling with Fahrfignewton from the old VW ads.

I don't expect PF to solve the world's problems. We're still working on "You - solve the energy crisis" thread. But I do see this as an issue worth discussing and PF members having various valuable perspectives.
 
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  • #23
The best approach (given the money being available) is probably to lock everything dangerous of valuble all the time, limit access, and use internal door controls to separate high trafs fic, high access spaces like class rooms from places where you don't want the unauthorized to go.
Cameras would be useful for after problems. but not necessarily preventative.
 
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  • #24
Vanadium 50 said:
I'm still struggling with Fahrfignewton from the old VW ads.

I don't expect PF to solve the world's problems. We're still working on "You - solve the energy crisis" thread. But I do see this as an issue worth discussing and PF members having various valuable perspectives.
Well, Wikipedia hasn't an English version page of https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rechtsgut.

It is a general principle worth being protected by law. It is not coupled with someone's rights, it is worth protecting per se regardless of the presence of an individual.

Human life, private possessions, freedom of speech, or protection of one's home (e.g. from surveillance) are all "Rechtsgüter". It requires extraordinary circumstances to violate them.

The debate here is whether the "Rechtsgüter" "freedom of research", "the right to possess potentially hazardous materials and tools", and "the right to handle potentially hazardous materials and tools" can be restricted by enforcing a legal responsibility of possible abuse by criminals. This is a juristical debate in my view and automatically political. And what about the obvious generalizations of that question?

You literally have asked for a "Rechtsgüterabwägung", a validation of conflicting legal interests.
 
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  • #25
BillTre said:
The best approach (given the money being available) is probably to lock everything dangerous of valuble all the time, limit access, and use internal door controls to separate high trafs fic, high access spaces like class rooms from places where you don't want the unauthorized to go.
Cameras would be useful for after problems. but not necessarily preventative.
Protestors still want to get their degrees. I would start with establishing a policy of automatic expulsion with no possibility of appeal for destroying or taking control of university property.
 
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  • #26
BillTre said:
separate high trafs fic, high access spaces like class rooms from places where you don't want the unauthorized to go.
Many universities have them fairly mixed - classrooms on the ground level, offices and labs mixed above. Locks between areas are intended to discourage more than prevent.

That's part of the reason I asked the original question. Universities are intended to be open places, and security is not designed to keep out the truly determined. At the same time, dangerous materials have become commonplace.

I was reminded that in the 1960's, buildings at some colleges were burned by protestors. Bad as that is, it would be substantially worse if the buildings contained chemicals.
Frabjous said:
Protestors still want to get their degrees.
I am not sure I agree. There was a Columbia student who ripped up her diploma immediately after receiving it. (Try that at Colorado School of Mines!)
 
  • #27
I was in a science building on the U of Oregon.
It had connections to several other neighboring science buildings
Lots of door card readers on doors and also for using elevators.
Since its all electronic and the cards are individualized, people could be given or denied access to different floors, parts of floors, or through entrances. There were also cameras at entry points.
There were suspended ceilings everywhere (a potential access path), so I got them to put chain link fences above the ceiling at entry doors.

There were big classes on the ground floor, doors to those spaces from thee outside were left open and unattended during class times, but were automatically closed after that. Campus cops made rounds probably twice a day.
The basement was restricted from undergrads. It held fish facilities, histology and EM labs. Entrance to this floor was given to people in abs using those spaces. The fish facility (a likely target of protestors) ad a more restrictive list of people with access.
The top two floors were for labs, graduate students, professors, etc.
I think undergrads who might want to talk with professors would get access to those floors during "class times". Lots of people would be around at those times which reduces the likelihood of problems.
There were also door alarms and individuals going in and out could be identified by their cards.

In running the fish facilities, our major concern was not bad people braking in anymore, but how would if some emergency (we had our own call-out alarm system with 3 or 4 levels of back-up power) happened at night, and everything lost both power and back-up power (for the door system), how would we get in in time to keep the fish from dying. The doors would default to letting people out (like for a fire) but not let people in. Cops were supposed to have metal master keys to get through the doors, but in some conditions they might defer opening our doors to saving people in ire circumstances.

Vanadium 50 said:
I was reminded that in the 1960's, buildings at some colleges were burned by protestors. Bad as that is, it would be substantially worse if the buildings contained chemicals.
When I was an undergrad (U of Md) Vietnam war protestors set the administration building on fire (not a big one) in a protest.

Vanadium 50 said:
I am not sure I agree. There was a Columbia student who ripped up her diploma immediately after receiving it. (Try that at Colorado School of Mines!)
There are often protestors of various kinds from off-campus. Not easy to keep them out. Same with thieves. Campuses tend to be open.
 
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  • #28
Vanadium 50 said:
I am not sure I agree. There was a Columbia student who ripped up her diploma immediately after receiving it.
I bet it is still on her resume.
 
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  • #29
Vanadium 50 said:
My question therefore is whether on-campus research should be permitted at all, given the risk to students, including those who are neither researchers nor protestors. A cloud of arsine in your dorm, for example, can really ruin your day.

Thoughts?
fresh_42 said:
I think that on-campus research is important and should not be restricted in any way.

In my university engineering program, we have restricted access limited to those who had to be in a given area. We had outer areas with heavy wooden doors and wire reinforced tempered glass windows, and then there were inner doors (some metal).

Access to the area was on a needed basis and with appropriate approvals. Chemicals and radioactive sources were checked out and in.

Anyone not assigned to the area needed an escort.

In the case of a small reactor (TRIGA), there security was more restrictive.
 
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  • #30
Astronuc said:
In the case of a small reactor (TRIGA), there security was more restrictive.
Once at UC Berkeley (1980's?) I walked into the cyclotron building. No one was around.
 
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  • #31
Vanadium 50 said:
On Monday evening, student protestors entered an engineering building at Stanford and proceeded to barricade and vandalize it.
Is there CCTV? Can the student protestors be identified reliably?
 
  • #32
strangerep said:
Can the student protestors be identified reliably?
That is an interesting question. The students were masked, but they managed to identify at least some of them, including from materials they left behind. The statement has been made that disciplinary actions have begun, and I am told other students are protesting that too.
 
  • #33
Hornbein said:
Once at UC Berkeley (1980's?) I walked into the cyclotron building. No one was around.
They might have had a cyclotron building, but the last cyclotron on campus, the 60 inch, was shut down in 1962.
 
  • #34
I think it should stay in the labs, and I also wish labs were a tiny bit better at differentiating between "dangerous" and "super ultra deadly". Our lab has potassium hydroxide and potassium cyanide in the same cabinet. 'Best' thing is, the laboratory isn't even locked after work hours! I could sneak out poisons with very little risk of being caught before it was too late.

I find it worrisome.
 
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  • #35
Mayhem said:
differentiating between "dangerous" and "super ultra deadly". Our lab has potassium hydroxide and potassium cyanide in the same
Where do you draw the line? Dimethyl mercury used to be relatively common as an NMR standard until a drop of it killed Karen Wettermann at Dartmouth. "Dangerous, sure, but we use only a little of it and take precautions" was the prevailing attitude. Now add some students intending to "send a message" or "raise awareness" by smashing the place up.

Giant dewars of LN2 are commonplace. A 500L dewar has enough to expel all the air in a 35 x 30 foot room. Double that, and the O2 levels are still low enough to cause unconsciousness and later death.
 
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