Saturday, December 25, 2010

How Bureaucrats are Killing Science

I read the following and I couldn't believe my eyes. If you know anything of how science started you know it was from sharing stuff, from shipping stuff around, from people trying things out. And none of this was done by filling out forms in triplicate, dealing with layered regulations that seem intent only in preventing anything from happening. While I understand precautions and rules, common sense should prevail over bureaucratic inertia!

Read this posting in the RRResearch blog of Rosemary Redfield of the University of British Columbia:
FedEx, why oh why do you hate us so?

The cells we're trying to ship to London (post 1, post 2) are back in our freezer.

When I last blogged about them (on Monday) they had been sent back to us by the local FedEx office because the paperwork wasn't perfect and we needed to put the styrofoam container into an appropriately labeled cardboard box. We'd fixed the errors (not all ours) and were only waiting to get some dry ice from Chemistry Stores on Tuesday.

So we sent the cells off on Tuesday with 8 kg of dry ice, and on Wednesday they came back again! This time there were only three tiny errors in the paperwork, only one of which was our oversight. But the errors were easy to fix (at least after I again called the helpful people at FedEx's Dangerous Goods office), so we topped up the dry ice and sent the shipment off again (third time) on Wednesday afternoon.

It didn't come back on Thursday morning (premature sigh of relief), but when we tracked its progress on Friday morning we found that, although it had been accepted by the Vancouver airport office in Richmond and shipped off to their Memphis hub, Memphis had sent it back to Richmond! It had arrived there early on Friday morning and was awaiting clearance (customs?).

I thought it would then be delivered back to us, but when it hadn't shown up by Friday afternoon I had to rush to the airport to fetch it, because I didn't want the cells to thaw out over the weekend. The clerk at the airport FedEx office showed me the tracking record in his system. The package had been rejected by the Memphis Ramp Agent, without any explanation. The clerk couldn't find anything wrong with the paperwork or packaging, except maybe that the 'dangerous goods' status should have been indicated on the computer-generated waybill. He said that it's very tricky to do this annotation on a computer-generated waybill, and kindly gave me a stack of paper/carbon copy waybills to use next time. On Monday I'll call the Dangerous Goods office again, to see if they either agree with this or have another explanation.

To add insult to injury, the RA says that FedEx is charging us the full price (more than $200) for each failed shipment!

Will we try again? Maybe not. The researcher who was going to do the assays in London is about to leave for a post-doc position at Stanford. And the RA says that we should just do the assays here, because she's done them before and they're not difficult.

Monday morning update: I just spoke to a FedEx Dangerous Goods expert. He said that the UK will not accept any shipments containing agents infectious to humans! My London colleagues had assured me that no import permit was needed for Haemophilus influenzae, and this document appears to confirm that, since H. influenzae is in Hazard Group 2.

Another update: I called FedEx back - it's a UK FedEx rule, not a UK government rule. Too bad they didn't bother to tell me this any of the other three times I spoke to them about this shipment; they'd have saved us a lot of money.
This is enough to pull you hair out and quit research. This is utterly nutty.

I think of Barry Marshall who proved that a bacteria causes gastric ulcers by testing his hypothesis on himself by drinking a culture of the bacteria. This would probably get him fired today for "unauthorized human experimentation" because you would need to file a request to experiment. The likelihood of getting an agreement would be close to impossible because people laughed at this theory and assured him that bacteria cannot survive in the acidic environment of the stomach. The test would never have been done. That's how you grind science to a halt.

The Redfield example spells out the doom of science to me. Oh sure, there will be lots of busy work in labs. People can always fill time. But when important experiments require bold steps and there is a heavy-handed bureaucracy to prevent it, nothing imaginative or exiting will be done. Science will end.

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