Thursday 10 April 2014

In the lab

In someone else's lab.  It's the last week of the teaching term, so things are winding down at The Institute but there are still boxes to be ticked and opportunities to seize.  Last summer, I had tentatively arranged that the Yr4 environmental chemists would visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Kilkenny because those people actually Do what I had been talking about doing in my Water Water Water Everywhere lectures before Christmas (Drinking Water, Eating WaterSwimming Water, Washing WaterCrypto Water), .  And, of course, I hadn't been talking about me doing anything but rather setting it up so that Team EnvChem could.  Then the practical sessions got ripped asunder from the lectures and shunted to the very end of the year when I was lecturing about other matters - Lithium, Radon, Nitrogen, Ozone.  The first of those 'practicals' was an assignment to read with care and attention (and answer questions on) an annual water quality report produced by . . . the EPA.  I thought that would be a) easy enough and b) an interesting connexion with the real world that surrounds us to focus the arm-waving theory that I have been channelling from text-books and the interweb.  Reports on this task came back in due course but with loud sighs about how long it took - nine hours by one account - so that was a little unfair of me but I'll do again next year.

Two days ago we rented a charabanc, half-filled it with students and tootled off to Kilkenny to see how they might work for a living with the skill-set we are making a start on crafting.  We were given a grand tour of the building by a chemist, so everyone except me was talking the same language.  Because of the water quality report exercise, I did understand the key acronyms COD, BOD, DO, QC, pH.  It was also useful for them to hear that the EPA must be cost effective and absolutely reliable - their results often have to stand up in court; so the audit trail must be impeccable.  Accordingly, many of the reagents, which previously had been weighed out and mixed by technicians are now bought in: guaranteed to a particular degree of accuracy.  Similarly, many of the procedures and protocols that used to be carried out by people are now done by nifty electronic machines with swinging robot arms.  These are just great . . . until they aren't.  The software for operating such instruments must be thousands of lines of code and the delicate electronics are necessarily in contact with lumpy biological material.  When €50,000 worth of kit goes phut, you can't tinker it back to life, you have to go on a waiting list for a technician from Germany. It's like modern cars, when the central locking or the electronic windows fritz you're in for serious money. When the lock of my Vauxhall Astra seized closed 30 years ago, I was able to open the door with a large screw-driver and my vice-grips; when the window disappeared in the bowels of the door, I was able to retrieve it by using a small screw-driver to take the door panel off.

In between showing off the kit, which technologists have a tendency to do, we heard an interesting back-story. Their environmental biologist had recently retired after thirty years service and, because of the hiring moratorium, had not been replaced.  He was one of four in the country all with a similar depth of experience who are all about to retire.  As I mentioned recently, there are few technological solutions to the biological assessment of water quality - you need to get wet, get samples of living creatures, identify and classify them, and compare them to similar samples from other places.  You can put a dichotomous key on your iPhone but there is no Ap yet capable of classifying to genus and species a photograph of a beetle.  That resonated with an ominous editorial in the current Nature which reports that Natural History is 'so yesterday' that it is no longer being taught.  The implication is that, even if The Man lifted the hiring freeze tomorrow there would be nobody qualified to replace the field-biologists who are in the process of leaving science.

It's a trend.  You can achieve a longer, healthier life if you take the time to exercise your (and your children's!) bones, but we'd rather play Xbox and throw drugs at the problems as they become manifest. For thifty me and my Scottish granny, it is significant that exercise is free while drugs cost folding money. The molecular biology revolution of the last 20-30 years has squeezed funding from all other traditions in biology - ecology, biogeography, taxonomy and phylogeny only have credibility if researchers use molecular markers, and palaeontology only peeks above the horizon if ancient DNA is being sequenced.  Traditional pursuit of knowledge in these areas, which costs very little but takes care and attention and a life-time's experience, is dismissed as mere 'stamp-collecting'.

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