Saturday, 15 June 2013

Lab Rats

We were of course worried when we heard that the bees were dying. That lasted a while and then, like the way of most things the worry was replaced by acceptance and then, more menacingly I suppose, indifference. So the bees died back, gradually. Brown areas opened up in gardens and parkland. Some fruit crops and orchards failed, prices rose, demand increased and then flagged. It was all a familiar cycle of warped supply and demand. People got used to not seeing or tasting apples, almonds, cherries and blueberries. It was of course a blow to the food industry and there was the hype of over-advice and trumped up alternatives. Not all of them went down well. Summers were rainy and the buzz and erratic flight of bees became a memory. Other, more successful insects filled in the gaps, flies and mosquitos, pests and nuisances that could replicate neither the charm nor the pollination skills of the bees.

Various attempts were made to replace the bees' pollenating action with synthetic alternatives. It was a chemical Holy Grail, like the cure for cancer or HIV. Billions of Dollars worth of business was at stake and the big boys took it seriously. We never really thought that our little lab, busy with test schedules and contracted forensic work could figure in such an industry until it all happened. I read the threads of the tests, the fails, the close but not close enough results. Apparently desperate measures, hoaxes and failures. The bees, no longer quite so busy, still dying, here and there and of course the ongoing alternative (and mostly madcap) attempts to save them or at least reverse the trends. The world is always hungry for something and conversely something is always hungry for the world.

As part of the research programme to seek out a synthetic pollen, batches of material were sent out for prescriptive testing by a wide range of randomly selected labs. It was a government initiative. They realised that, in this kind of science, there was an X factor of probability that suggested he answer was close but unseen. It was under our noses but the white noise of the corporate and the size of the problem might well be masking the obvious answer. There in the details. Rumours abounded of course, mostly around the research being carried out by the Chinese and the Brazilians. They were the hot teams, under pressure in the fields, up the Amazon, deep in africa. Big game hunting for a robot insect, a spray, and accident, a petri dish of answers, mould, DNA, fungus or just some identifiable magic scraped from the back end of a bee. Where it was a bumble, a honey or a killer hardly mattered. We just need an answer.

Our batch came in a Fed-Ex jiffy bag. Three 50cc plastic bottles of material each with a unique bar coded label. There was also a sheet of tests and website where the data was to be deposited once the programmed work was completed. It was Mark who carried out the work, I supervised and backed up the notes. We were both pretty meticulous on this and as a government cheque was always welcome I hoped for some repeat business in this lottery. The high price of food these days meant that every penny was counted and pinching. We did the tests and analysis and in the prescribed manner wrote up the notes and uploaded them into the the greater machine. We would be informed about our success score the website said once other corresponding data had been collected. The three plastic bottles and the residual material in them was to be Fed-Ex'd back to the centre for correlation and recheck. The process just seemed to be running on and on in some bureaucratic spiral. We took in more batches, did more tests and the cheques kept coming. After a few months I'd to take on an extra graduate to help with the work. Our little lab was scoring well and the repeat business was welcome.

Repetition can be good but it can also be dangerous. It breeds that awful familiarity and carelessness that comes with simplification and a regular dumbing down. I never thought that it would come to us or indeed happen to me but it did. It sneaked itself in, a rogue result, a bad figure. We were on our 99th test, months down the line. Lots of data and results and submissions and we were running on auto pilot, cruise control, whatever. We got lazy, other things were going on, we lost focus and we'd forgotten what honey ever tasted like and how bees sounded. Numbers on a page, flickering data on a screen. In the slip a percentage test was compromised, unseen, we fudged the numbers, we assumed the quality matched, a batch was spoiled and we missed it, we missed the bastard. The jiffy bag was returned but the match was wrong and we went out on the weekend blissfully unaware. We drank beer, sat out in gardens, talked about sports and beefsteak, moaned about the weather, looked at the patches where certain flowers and foliage had been, got annoyed by the new strains of dominant buzzing non-bees whatever they were, didn't think about Monday.

On Monday I picked up the automated email, a “do not reply” one. It said that our data was compromised and that a follow up call would be made. Mark and I ran over the last test results and we found the rogue. There was a mild panic. “That's the fuckin' gravy train derailed”. They called about 1130. The robot voice said a new batch would be sent but we had to replicate our mistake, the data we'd submitted was described as “of interest”. When the batch arrived on Wednesday I followed the two processes, right and wrong, meticulously. If we'd fucked up then we'd do it consistently, we'd prove our integrity. Our systems might have a flaw but we could repeat and understand (and eradicate) error. That seemed a statistically important answer to be able to stand by. Good systems equal good science.

We uploaded the new and repeated data. I sighed and sat down. There was other work to do and I got on with it hoping that the previous incident would evaporate. It surely would.

To be continued...

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