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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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Security in Science

SLAC is different from many other DOE facilities in that the public (with ID) can enter. There is a radiation fence that the public is not allowed past (without proper escort) but SLAC is open – from a security point of view – since weapons and other “top secret” type government work is not done there.

Unfortunately, there was a recent act of vandalism at a SLAC facility – the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. More unfortunately, this vandalism was not just someone spray-painting something offensive on the wall. A few thousand samples of crystallized protein were removed from their liquid nitrogen storage, hence destroyed. While these samples are replaceable, it will require time and money. The samples are estimated to be worth half a million dollars.

This was a shock to the SLAC community. I wondered who could do such a thing. Were they a disgruntled (former?) graduate student, a competing experimenter, or someone who is anti-science (and a bit crazy)? This may cause security to significantly increase at SLAC, which would be regrettable if it means that the Stanford (and wider) community can not come to SLAC for talks. I wonder if CERN has increased security measures in fear of people trying to somehow stop the LHC “from destroying the world”. There have been violent attacks upon scientific facilities before, and there are people out there who genuinely think the LHC will somehow cause harm. I’m sure Dan Brown’s books don’t help people trust CERN either.

The FBI investigated the incident and has made an arrest. It turns out that she is a former employee who felt overworked and was fired from the group about a month ago. I’m somewhat glad this is the answer – it doesn’t point to an anti-science terrorist group or a maliciously competitive experimental culture. Hopefully this does not change the open culture of SLAC. I must also add that while groups and advisors vary, I find that SLAC groups seem to expect more reasonable workloads than many University groups out there. This act is a reflection of her, and not the SLAC work environment.

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