Sunday, April 22, 2012

Science Culture: A Lesson for Nuclear Safety Culture?

An article in the New York Times* earlier this week caught our attention as part of our contemplation of the causes of safety culture issues and effectiveness.  The article itself is about the increasing incidence of misconduct by scientists in their research and publications, particularly in scientific journals.  There may in fact be a variety of factors that are responsible, including just the sheer accessibility of journal published research and the increased opportunity that errors will be spotted.  But the main thrust of the article is that other more insidious forces may be responsible:

“But other forces are more pernicious.  To survive professionally, scientists feel the need to publish as many papers as possible….And sometimes they cut corners or even commit misconduct to get there.”

The article goes on to describe how in the scientific community the ability to publish is key to professional recognition, advancement and award of grant money.  There is enormous pressure to publish first and publish often to overcome “cutthroat competition”.

So how do retractions of scientific papers relate to nuclear safety culture?  In the most general sense the presence and impact of “pressure” on scientists reminds us of the situation in nuclear generation - now very much a high stakes business - and the consequent pressure on nuclear managers to meet business goals and in some cases, personal compensation goals.  Nuclear personnel (engineers, managers, operators, craftsmen, etc.), like the scientists in this article, are highly trained and expected to observe certain cultural norms; a strong safety culture is expected.  For scientists there is adherence to the scientific method itself and the standards for integrity of their peer community.  Yet both may be compromised when the desire for professional success becomes dominant.

The scientific environment is in most ways much simpler than a nuclear operating organization and this may help shed light on the causes of normative failures.  Nuclear organizations are inherently large and complex.  The consideration of culture often becomes enmeshed in issues such as leadership, communications, expectations, pronouncements regarding safety priorities, perceptions, SCWE, etc.  In the simpler scientific world, scientists are essentially sole proprietors of their careers, even if they work for large entities.  They face challenges to their advancement and viability, they make choices, and sometimes they make compromises.  Can reality in the nuclear operating environment be similar, or is nuclear somehow unique and different?  

*  C. Zimmer, “A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform,” New York Times (Apr. 16, 2012).

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