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Researchers and Lab Security

Laboratory managers like to attend to positive subjects (such as the emergence of new products and processes) while their research colleagues tend to focus on the laboratory bench. But it is becoming clear that fraud, extortion and other crimes are with us on such a large scale that advance preparation is necessary; mere tactical responses are no longer sufficient. For this reason, scientists, engineers and laboratory managers alike must learn to adapt to a new age in which security is of paramo

By | January 12, 1987

Laboratory managers like to attend to positive subjects (such as the emergence of new products and processes) while their research colleagues tend to focus on the laboratory bench. But it is becoming clear that fraud, extortion and other crimes are with us on such a large scale that advance preparation is necessary; mere tactical responses are no longer sufficient. For this reason, scientists, engineers and laboratory managers alike must learn to adapt to a new age in which security is of paramount importance.

First, it is not only criminals in pursuit of personal gain who disrupt, kidnap or extort. There are also dissident political minorities who break the law in support of causes (such as those of the rights of ethnic minorities or of women) that ultimately succeed. A democracy demands both that the majority opinion be upheld and that violence in support of these minority opinions be restrained. At present, British workers in labs conducting animal experiments are being severely and illegally harassed by animal rights activists. The laboratory manager must rigorously pursue and prosecute these activists even though one day they likely will be able to say that their illegal actions helped reduce and further control animal experimentation. The unfortunate manager will then unjustly be said to have been reactionary and inhumane.

A second tension is one of managerial attitude. To win the allegiance of colleagues, a good manager must adopt a confident manner and a refusal to be harried—attitudes that sometimes conflict with the quiet precautions a prudent manager must make to deal with the kind of emergency he or she confidently tells the staff is improbable. The manager must adequately fund the laboratory's security officer (sometimes at the expense of much more attractive revenue-earning investments) and at the same time suggest that security officers are no more than a regrettable necessity.

Preparing for the Worst

A third tension lies in the technical and psychological aspects of a plant's protective measures. A sophisticated computer-controlled door-locking system, capable of discriminating between different user priorities and behavior, will be ineffective if it is not understood and supported by those users. They will simply prop the door open with a fire extinguisher or frustrate the system in some other way. Moreover, while all alarms will be bedevilled by some kind of unforeseen event that causes them to operate when they should not, few false alarms can be tolerated, which places severe requirements on system design. The security-conscious manager must have an uncommonly balanced knowledge of the behavioral and physical factors involved in these security systems.

Terrorism—in the form of extortion by poisoning or contaminating food or other products, hostage-taking and kidnapping—is sufficiently in the news to remind us that here, too, laboratory managers must possess subtlety and ingenuity (plus strong nerves) and have trained negotiators available. The detection and prevention of access to secrets by electronic "bugging" is another matter requiring understanding of the human mind as well as the devices. Computer fraud may seem a purely technical issue, but, again, knowledge of the kind of people involved may provide the best clues as to how they approach criminal practices.

Science, being neutral, is used by both criminals and the police. The more scientific methods are exploited in attacking the laboratory, the more they are called for in defending it. But the public is inclined to be worried by elaborate protection, seeing it as an indication of the insidious advance of a police state. In Britain, at least, people dislike police officers using firearms, even though the weapons of the assassin are steadily increasing in power.

There is one final dilemma: how much time should a busy manager or scientist devote to these matters? After all, there are customers to attract and satisfy, quality and output to maintain, costs to control and reduce, innovation to encourage, and people to choose and train. Isn't it justifiable to regard security as a tactical matter, and when anything happens, just do the best you can?

The answer is no. Experience argues that even a very little preparation can make a lot of difference in the outcome of a security breach. That is why the chemical and allied industries, and scientists in general, need to begin paying attention to these topics. Even research scientists who feel themselves distant from the shop floor need to address these urgent concerns.

Davies is president of the Society of Chemical Industry, which, together with
the British Association for the Advancement of Science, recently sponsored
a conference that featured discussion of industrial security. His address is
15 Belgrave Square, London, S. W 1, United Kingdom.

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