Most of us would remember that Prof. Harran was charged on four felony counts for the laboratory death of undergraduate Sheri Sangji in December 2008. The case dragged on for several years, and in 2014 Prof. Harran and UCLA struck a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to avoid the charges in exchange for a fine and community service. The charges were not refuted; they were negotiated for.
Now I am certainly not of the opinion that someone like Prof. Harran should not be rehabilitated into the scientific community in some way or another. Nor do I think that he should never be recognized for his ongoing research. I am also not in a position to pass legal judgement on the degree of his culpability.
But that's not the point here at all. If the award was from, say the ACS, for purely technical achievement I would have been less miffed. As it happens it's a recognition from the AAAS: the American Association for Advancement of Science.
Advancement of Science does not just mean advancement of the technical aspects of science; it means advancement of the sum total of the scientific enterprise, a key component of which is the intersection of science with public appreciation and public policy. The AAAS was set up in 1848 with the express goal of not just recognizing scientific achievement but of facilitating scientific discourse in the public sphere. Past presidents of the AAAS have included Robert Millikan and Stephen Jay Gould, both of whom put a premium on scientists actively engaging with the public.
Let's take a look at the official mission of the AAAS as noted on their own website:
- Enhance communication among scientists, engineers, and the public;
- Promote and defend the integrity of science and its use;
- Strengthen support for the science and technology enterprise;
- Provide a voice for science on societal issues;
- Promote the responsible use of science in public policy;
- Strengthen and diversify the science and technology workforce;
- Foster education in science and technology for everyone;
- Increase public engagement with science and technology; and
- Advance international cooperation in science.
In my opinion, the election of Prof. Harran goes against at least four of these goals; enhancement of communication between scientists and the public, strengthening support for the scientific enterprise, increasing public engagement with science and most importantly, "promoting and defending the integrity of science and its use".
It's quite clear from the AAAS's mission statement that scientific responsibility and scientific outreach are two of its major aims. In fact one can argue that the AAAS, along with the NAS (National Academy of Sciences), is one of two policy organs in this country which represent the public face of the scientific enterprise. For more than a century now the AAAS has been an integral part of the nationwide scientific dialogue involving scientists, the government and the people. Perhaps it's fitting in this regard that the current CEO of the AAAS is former New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, one of the few politicians in this country who's not only finely attuned to the truth-seeking nature of science and its potential corruption but was also a serious practicing scientist himself at one point.
All this makes the matter even denser and harder to understand. How does the election of someone who is still under a cloud of suspicion for not having implemented responsible safety practices in his laboratory at a major university and who has not pled guilty to any of the charges against him a healthy reaffirmation of the dialogue between scientists and the public? How does this election help them in their stated mission of "promoting the integrity of science and its use" when Prof. Harran's actions and the charges against him clearly called that integrity of use into question?
In addition, the statement from a spokesperson of the AAAS saying that they were "unaware of the charges against Harran" is simply bizarre. The Harran and Sangji stories have been all over the news for more than seven years now; how much more exposure do they need for an organization of the size and reach of the AAAS to take notice?
The whole episode is deflating and incomprehensible. Again, this is not about Prof. Harran's merits purely as a scientist; in fact in a sense it's not about him at all. It's about what the AAAS wants to be. Does it want to be an institution purely recognizing technical achievement or does it want to be one which promotes scientific responsibility and outreach? If - as its almost one hundred and fifty year history indicates - it wants to be the latter, it can surely do better than this.
Note: For a comprehensive view of the details of the case as they unfolded, see C&EN reporter Jyllian Kemsley's outstanding coverage here.