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Susan Silbey

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We examine academic research laboratories as examples of intractable governance sites. These spaces often elude regulatory warnings and rules because of the professional status of faculty members, the opacity of scientific work to outsiders, and loose coupling of policy and practice in organizations. We describe one university’s efforts to create a system for managing laboratory health, safety, and environmental hazards, thereby constraining conventional faculty habit to ignore administrative and legal procedures. We demonstrate the specific struggles safety managers face in creating system responsiveness, that is, feedback to re-channel noncompliant laboratory practices. We show how faculty members are buffered from the consequences of their activities, thus impeding the goals of responsibility and accountability. We conclude by asking where such pockets of intractability reside in other organizations and whether the surrounding buffer, if there is one, may nonetheless paradoxically create an effective margin of safety.

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