I am in the process of leaving a PhD program after less than one year. I have spoken with my advisers and am slated to leave by the end of the summer.

I have various reasons for leaving, including general disinterest in lab work and that is the official story that my advisers are giving.

During the course of my PhD, I have had to write some reports and an abstract for a talk that involve seriously stretching the truth. In short, I am misrepresenting the promise of the molecule that I am studying. I am misrepresenting this to the grant people. I am also omitting data that doesn't support the conclusions my advisers want, but not producing any false data.

The other thing that I have been doing is growing transgenic plants that express a drug for oral delivery in a food crop. Our lab does not have the proper approval from the university to do this, and we are growing it in a greenhouse without proper containment. I am not a plant scientist so I do not know the potential danger, but I do know the species I am studying has the potential to cross pollinate and produces many tinny seeds that get everywhere. I am concerned about the safety and another lab member has voiced his concerns to my advisers but no action has been taken. We are in the process of trying to get a permit to grow it, but it hasn't been issued yet.

By leaving my PhD, I have already lost all potential to enter my field of study so I am currently switching to statistics and happy about it. My concern is that I might be implicated in something if all this sloppiness catches up to my advisers.

What steps can I do to protect myself so that my work here doesn't come back to haunt me?

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    I have nothing useful to say, except that you are right to worry about the situation, both for general dangers to the public and for danger to your own reputation. You can obviously hope that "nothing comes of it", but the chances are that something will. Maybe you have to be a whistle-blower... but be careful. – paul garrett Aug 15 at 22:36

I would strongly consider whistle-blowing (internal, within your organization) in this particular situation.

There are many reasons (good, bad, and hybrid) that lead people to the decision of becoming whistle-blowers: plain vanilla ethics, the desire for power & attention, willingness to protect others, legal requirements, etc. However, protecting yourself by whistle-blowing is a totally legitimate reason.

Whistle-blowing comes with some potential consequences, but here are the reasons why you might incline towards doing it:

  • you already made a decision to quit your program: thus, the situation influenced you (and other group members) heavily;
  • you already decided to switch the field of study;
  • this story can have direct consequences as bio-material is involved. There are very good reasons why special regulations exist for working with such materials;
  • the fact that the wrong-doing is happening has documental evidence: lack of the permit that is required.

If you decide to proceed, be careful in terms of the facts you present. Try to be as objective as possible without adding unnecessary emotions. Make sure that you present the facts with as little interpretation of your own as possible. Let the knife do the work facts speak for themselves.

  • @dantonio totally understand, it is a tough decision. You would have to weigh the probability and consequences for the whistle-blowing in comparison to even worse consequences of you not whistle-blowing. Nothing prevents turning the fact upside-down to make you be (at lest partially) responsible for the mess - if you had not blown the whistle. – Anton Menshov Aug 16 at 18:37

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