View From The Trenches

William Tivol tivol at
Fri Jun 30 10:46:32 EST 1995

Dear Kathy,
	Just a few short comments on selected sections, so most of the discus-
sion snipped.

U27111 at wrote:

: D: The government sets the guidelines and certifies each
: D: institution, the institutions implement the policies and certify
: D: individual labs for the use of these materials. In some cases
: D: (radiation) the institutions train and certify individuals.

	I am on the radiation safety committee at my institution, and I can say
that there are federal, state and institutional regulations which determine who
can use what isotopes in what quantities and so forth.  We take these very ser-
iously--sometimes to the annoyance of some of the PI's.  We insist that all
radiation users (defined as those who can order isotopes and use them without
supervision) take a 30-hour radiation safety course, and that provisional rad-
iation users (who cannot order and must be supervised by a radiation user) take
a 6-hour safety course.  These courses have both general safety information and
institution-specific information.  The system works well for several aspects of
isotope use:  1) Everybody knows we are serious about radiation safety (we also
cite people for violations with the threat of removing their user status for
failure to rectify the violation), 2) Everybody has at least minimal training,
3) The safety office knows what isotopes are in which labs, and 4) There are
few incidents of unsafe radiation practices and even fewer incidents where
there is any possible radiation exposure above the federal or state guidelines.
The system, however, does nothing to affect the quality of the data obtained
from using the isotopes.

: Do I feel this system work?  No, anything which relies on self-
: policing is destined to fail.  If anything, the examples you cite
: is considered more of a bore/chore for most P.I.s to *have to take
: care of* and it's just a matter of making the paperwork look good.

	Since the state is involved via licensing our institution, the system
is more than self-policing.  Frequent inspections by the safety office and
monitoring by state inspectors goes a long way toward forcing safe use of
radioactive materials.  If the paperwork looks good, but the swipes show con-
tamination in the lab, a violation will be issued, and unless the lab cleans up
its act, its ability to order and use isotopes will be terminated.  Of course,
the safety office cannot tell if contaminated items are, say, removed from the
lab and dumped in the Hudson river, but such procedures are much more bother
than complying with the safety regulations (and can be prosecuted by outside
law enforcement).  I can assure you that any whistle-blower who reported such
a practice would be taken very seriously and protected from retaliation.  Again
this does not address the quality of the research--only its safety.

: I've been in the business far too long... you can't tell me that
: people really pay attention to actually how much radiation gets
: tossed down the sink or into the garbage - I've been taught by this
: system to 'just make it add up on paper'.

	Whether people pay attention is a function of whether the safety office
pays attention and their willingness to apply real sanctions against offending
PIs (and lab techs).

  And as a side note: due
: to the tricky calculations of half-life, even if you did attempt to
: keep track of everything you do with radioactive materials... it
: still isn't very accurate/realistic anyway.  It's all guesstamation
: which you try to present as accurate when you fill out your
: inventory sheets.

	Half-life calculations are not all that tricky; either you have a long
lived isotope like 14C, where there is little correction for decay, a short
lived isotope like 32P, where you count an aliquot on arrival (you *do* do this
to determine how dark your gels will be etc. don't you?) and reduce the acti-
vity by a factor of two every half-life (and use log tables or a slide rule for
fractions of a half life), or something in between like 3H, where there are
occasional corrections to be made.  Other than that, it is just a matter of 
keeping track of where the isotope could possibly go, gathering all the pads,
solutions, equipment, animal litter, etc., counting samples to determine the
total activity accounted for, and making sure there is none unaccounted for.
There is no black magic, and any nucleus has either decayed or must still be
around somewhere.  If the safety office insists on care in accounting, all the
undecayed nuclei can and will be accounted for.  Except for allowance for
counting statistics--which can lead to errors for low-level activities--the
accounting should be accurate and realistic.

: If somebody is caught doing fraudulent work (under the lab
: accreditation/certification system)... you just 'find' other things
: wrong with the lab for them to lose their
: accreditation/certification and eventually funding.  In other
: words... make sure all the 't's are crossed and 'i's are dotted...
: make it uncomfortable for them to continue.

	No, no, no.  If somebody is caught doing fraudulent work, you simply
remove their certification permanently and for cause.  If somebody is doing
sloppy work, you apply a sliding scale from requiring a refresher course to
maintain certification (for minor problems) to temporary removal of certifica-
tion (and suspension of grant funding) for the more serious cases.  There is
not only no need to 'find' other things, but such a practice is both subject to
corruption and counterproductive to getting the real issues corrected.  If the
certification system is to have any value in improving research, it must be
seen to have real teeth and to be aimed directly at the issue of research qual-
ity.  There should also be no possibility of the inspector being able to 'find'
something and threaten to shut down a lab unless (s)he is given a bigger hotel
suite (or a bundle of cash).

: Well, I don't go back 15 years, just 7... but I think if we look at
: the fact, in cancer research for example, that there have been
: virtually no major prevention or treatment breakthroughs for most
: cancers in more than two decades - this tells us a lot.  This tells
: *me* at least that there is *more* incompetence, *more*
: reprehensible behavior and *more* outright fraud occurring than at
: least the 20 years prior?

: What else explains this so obvious lack of progress?

	There have been periods in all sciences where there is astounding pro-
gress and those where things seem to stagnate--especially as regards major
breakthroughs.  Physics provides two examples this century.  Sometimes fields
progress rapidly with the introduction of new technology, sometimes it's some-
one's brilliant idea, and there is a series of discoveries followed by some
consolidation, then, when all the obvious stuff has been done, there is a time
of filling in details where progress seems to stall.  I am not an expert on
cancer, so I cannot assess the state of that field, but could this not be an
explanation?  If the recent results finding both genes and viruses associated
with various cancers are good work, then the deeper understanding of cancer can
be expected to lead to improvements in prevention and/or treatment.  If there
are no such breakthroughs in the next 20 years, I will probably agree with you
that little or no competent cancer research is being done.

: under the Gold Rush has resulted in what I term the new attitudes,
: morels and ethics of Science of the 90's.

	They're good mushrooms, but have nothing to do with the Gold Rush ;-^).
				Bill Tivol

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