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I'm a graduate student who's currently working on an experiment involving some animals. I have two separate places where I keep my animals, and one of them is in a locked section of a lab (which is only accessible by myself, my PI, and a few other investigators).

A few weeks ago when I came into the lab, I noticed that all of the animals in that locked section had died. Without going into too much detail, after a quick investigation I found that a gas valve must have been opened to kill the animals, and then closed again. It is impossible for the valve to open spontaneously, let alone open and close. I also determined that it couldn't have been a gas leak because I have a habit of always setting the valve to a certain position after closing it, and it wasn't exactly in that position when I checked it, so it must have been physically moved.

I thought that maybe the stars unfortunately aligned and I had gone wrong somewhere for this to occur, so I left it alone and kept it to myself but have been careful to check the valve everyday afterward.

A few days ago, the animals were dead once again. The valve had also been moved. Although I don't have concrete evidence, I'm strongly suspecting that either my PI (who I don't have the best relationship with) or another investigator in the lab is deliberately killing the animals. I don't know what to do now, who to approach, and what to say. My entire experiment is now also in jeopardy. What steps do I take?

Clarifications / responses to comments:

  • The "animals" are insects, so "animal care regulations" are limited
  • No one has commented on the deaths. My section of the lab is rarely used, so they may not have noticed.
  • There are no security cameras.
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    @bluewhale From the research ethics policy of the last university where I worked: 'A wide range of potential research projects may involve living organisms that are not regulated under ASPA. However, the principles of the 3Rs and our responsibility to formally consider the justification of such work, and at all times work with consideration, respect for the living world, and to cause least harm, remains.' "Organisms that are not regulated under ASPA",... – Daniel Hatton Feb 23 at 21:31
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    ... in this context, means invertebrates other than cephalopods, and the "3Rs" are "replace, reduce, refine", so I think it's pretty clear that a lethal, deliberate act of sabotage of the type you suspect would be a reportable violation of that ethics policy, albeit not of public law. – Daniel Hatton Feb 23 at 21:38
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    This is as to say " somebody put a chemical in my reaction flask". And no chance to get a trace of it. It this happened, then it is a very unpleasant and difficult to face situation. I won't know what to do if not asking the supervisor on his opinion on the insect death. At least is a starting point - Perhaps insect can get sick and infect each other? Could have been lack of oxygen? I wouldn't mention sabotage. Also think on what would be the benefit of a sabotage? Nothing in term of research nor in terms of prestige internal to the institute. – Alchimista Feb 24 at 12:01
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    One thought I have: Could someone be accidentally bumping the valve when reaching/looking for something else? That is, they could bump the valve, realize it and then quickly close it again. They may not have said anything because of either being scared of the consequences or because they didn't think/realize that such a small release of gas would be enough to harm the insects. I don't know whether the physical setup of the valve would allow this, but this is one thing to consider. – 2ndQuantized Feb 24 at 22:47
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I assume you're doing CO2, in which case you frame it as a serious safety concern and insist on looking into it. You're in an enclosed space with an asphyxiant that appears to be leaking. This is a critical health and safety issue and should be treated accordingly.

It's unlikely in my opinion that you are being sabotaged but if you are whoever is doing it will stop if these issues are investigated

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  • If there are non-breathable gasses, there might be an oxygen or other gas alarm. If the alarm did not go off, that might indicate that the leak is in the insects' enclosure, which is probably designed to be flooded with gas and not expose people to the gas. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 24 at 4:29
  • I've never seen a fly room that didn't just use a tube you stuck into vials whenever you need it. An actual enclosure seems unlikely. (Mice with iso are a different story of course) – user133933 Feb 24 at 4:39
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I am assuming that your line manager is your PI and that you would normally take any issues or problems relating to your work to them. If that is the case, then you ought to report your concerns to your PI.

While it sounds like you don't have a good rapport with your PI, that does not prevent you from behaving professionally.

Ask your PI for a meeting, raise your concerns, make good notes during your meeting (literally write notes during your meeting), do not accuse anyone, offer a solution (perhaps ask that a webcam be set up to record your insects, ostensibly to time when the deaths occur, but also can monitor who entets the lab), ask for the PI to consider the matter but don't press the PI for an immediate solution.

Summarize the meeting in a subsequent email to your PI, asking the PI to add anything that was discussed.

Now you have brought your concerns to the person whom your institution expects you to tell, and you have a record of that meeting.

If it turns out that matters don't improve, you can refer to your earlier discussion and take it from there. This could include raising the issue again with your PI, or, if necessary, bringing the issue to the attention of people who could advise further. This could be the health & safety officer if you had justifiable concerns about a leak (or "leak"), or it could be your Department/School/Faculty head if you find the PI unhelpful.

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    Yes, documentation is very important here. In the meeting with the PI, I would avoid proposing your theory of sabotage, and instead summarize the facts very clearly and let the PI draw conclusions from there. TBH I think the sabotage is unlikely, but if he is the saboteur then this is still the best play. If he's not, he's not going to want to believe it was sabotage, and there's no reason for you to stake your reputation on that theory when more information needs to be gathered. If you're right, it will come to light when you escalate. – Well... Feb 24 at 11:11
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    Also I would add that when you send the follow-up email to the PI documenting the meeting took place, he'll probably realize you know what you're doing and you are documenting. This may stop the bullying on its own, if that is what's going on. – Well... Feb 24 at 11:13
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It is critical that you approach the matter from the most objective point of view possible. Most importantly, do not make any assumptions about who did it and why it happened.

I can only repeat: do not make any assumptions about who did it and why it happened.

While it is quite possible that someone sabotages you, it may be that there is a misalignment of circumstances; and if there is an act of sabotage, it may be somebody entirely out of your picture, such as cleaning personnel or somebody entirely different.

In short, as you approach the matter, keep an open mind about what may have happened and why. Stick to the facts. Proceed by involving your PI, but at the same time triggering animal protection protocols, so that as many people as possible know about the matter being investigated. Hopefully that is a sufficient deterrence for any but the most determined and out-of-their-mind saboteur and if they are the latter, it enters outright criminal territory, which requires an entirely different ballpark of escalation.

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Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

For purposes of advice, I will accept your assertion that you have good cause to believe that the insects were killed by turning the gas on. Even in this case, it is surely possible that this could have been done for some other purpose than the deliberate killing of these insects. Perhaps someone turned the gas on for some other purpose (or not even knowing it was a gas tap) and then turned it off again when they saw it had done some harm. The fact that this happened twice does raise a reasonable suspicion of dasdardly deeds, but it is still possible that this is just someone making an error.

I recommend you go and speak to your PI about your concerns, and still to what you know for sure about the mechanics of the death, without speculating on the presumed malice of whoever turned on the gas tap. Any improper use of the gas will raise a safety concern (and not just for the insects) so it is likely that this will at least lead to briefing the lab users on proper and improper use of the gas taps. If it keeps happening, leading to strong suspicions of intentional sabotage then you might then take stronger action. For now, start by speaking to your PI and give all participants the benefit of the doubt.

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This is a very serious allegation. You should immediately speak with your PI about it. It is highly unlikely your PI would sabotage you - what could they have to gain?

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    This has been downvoted, but I find it extremely unlikely that a PI would kill their own animals -- they're paying for them! – knzhou Feb 24 at 4:40
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    I upvoted because speaking to the PI is the right thing to do first, but the answer would be better with a little more explanation about why this is the best course of action. The answer by @Nicholas is a good example. – Louic Feb 24 at 8:24

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