Susan Silbey honored for lab safety research

                      Silbey has received the 2012 Scott Award from the ASA,
                  a $25K Seed Grant from UCLA for lab safety research,
                  and a grant from the MIT Simons Center for the
                  Social Brain for work on autism diagnosis patterns.



For outstanding contributions to the field

Professor Susan S. Silbey, head of MIT’s Anthropology Program, has received the 2012 W. Richard Scott Award for Distinguished Scholarship from the American Sociological Association (ASA) for her “outstanding contribution to the discipline.”

Silbey, who has spent the past decade investigating how environmental health and safety laws are put into practice in the lab, has also received a $25,000 seed grant from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Laboratory Safety to conduct a preliminary analysis of data on inspections and accidents in laboratories.

Can a system become self-correcting? 

The grant will help Silbey address the key question: Can a system learn from its own mistakes and become self-correcting? To find out, Silbey plans to examine data from several labs and search for patterns in what problems emerge and whether they vary by type of research or other variables.

UCLA’s interest in this question stems from a lab accident that killed an UCLA student in early 2009. The young woman was severely burned after accidentally exposing a pyrophoric chemical to air, igniting a fire. “It turns out that the lab had been inspected several months before. So, a system was in place to improve practice, but it hadn’t improved,” Silbey says. Her goal is to try to determine how a safety system can make routine lab practices better.

Making science safer

Silbey, who is the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, has a long track record of research into lab safety, including producing the paper for which she and a co-author received the W. Richard Scott Award: “Governing the Gap: Forging Safe Science Through Relational Regulation.” The paper describes how lab safety rules are implemented on a routine basis and pinpoints how and why safety systems break down.

“One of the observations we make in the paper is that the actors in charge need to be given freedom not to be efficient,” Silbey says. “That desire for efficiency undermines a lot.”

The ASA award citation praised the article for providing “a clear and detailed explanation of how tight coupling between regulatory systems and everyday practices is actually accomplished.... Their analysis of the compromises regulatory systems make in order to succeed is an exemplary contribution to our understanding of effective real-world bureaucracy.”

Silbey co-authored the paper with a former student, Ruthanne Huising PhD ’08, who currently serves as an assistant professor of management at McGill University. In 2011, the article won the best paper prize from Regulation & Governance.

“Unlike most scholarship, [this paper is] not simply showing how things go wrong but shows how you can improve an ongoing practice in a way that acknowledges that things always do go wrong. It offers a prescription for doing things better,” Silbey says.


Finding patterns in autism diagnosis

Silbey also received a grant last spring from the MIT Simons Center for the Social Brain to support research by one of her students on patterns in the diagnosis of autism. Phech Colatat, a graduate student in economic sociology at the MIT Sloan School of Management, plans to analyze all the medical records from a major health provider to identify geographical and professional networks among doctors who have diagnosed autism.

“[He] is going to study the pattern of diagnosis to see if the increase which we have seen in autism diagnosis may be related to relations among medical professionals,” Silbey says. “Diagnoses are known to be patterned by geography. So, is the doctor a central player?”

Silbey points out that this research focuses not on autism itself but on whether the diagnosis of the disorder fits any pattern. “[Colatat] is a network scholar,” she says, noting that the network is the basic unit of sociology. “Sociologists are never interested in one person. What they study are the relationships between or among persons, the pattern of interactions.”

As it happens, it was just such a pattern that helped Silbey make the connection between Colatat, a student in two of her classes (Methods for Graduate Research in the Social Sciences and Qualitative Research Methods), and the new the Simons Center. This grant — and the one from UCLA — both emerged from Silbey’s network of connections at MIT.

“These two funding awards are interesting because they represent two ends of a spectrum in the ways in which I get involved in research projects,” Silbey says, noting that she heard about the UCLA opportunity from a subject of one of her research projects. “It shows the overlap between research and teaching.”


Suggested links

MIT SHASS News | Silbey and Huising win best paper prize

Susan Silbey | MIT Faculty Webpage

MIT SHASS | Anthropology Program


Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editor/Art Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill 
Photography: Jonathan Sachs