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From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 23 November 2016

This was simultaneously the summit of his career as a scientist, and the end of it, fading into the fog of administration

The setup would allow for the screening of dozens of compounds, patient and animal samples or conditions at the various levels (in silico, in vitro, in vivo), the terabytes of data generated daily siphoned into the clusters next door for analysis. The space was perfect: all the heavy equipment (so state-of-the-art it was not even on the general market yet), together with the servers, offices and accessory lab components would fit, just take out a few benches and counter tops, install gas lines and cables connecting to the cluster, reinforce the power, add a backup generator and surge controllers, work on the loading dock and improve patient accessibility, maybe knock down the partitions installed to transform big labs into individual fiefdoms.

This was a new era, an era of joining forces in high-level core facilities and service providers, and this blossoming Unit fit the bill perfectly. It must be heartening that both national and European authorities, both public and private organizations, had realized that this was a Vision worth supporting, as a once in a lifetime opportunity to put the University forward, taking resident expertise to the next level. A triumph of grant writing and lobbying that should make any Director proud.

David sat through the company representative’s glowing spiel with a look so obviously despondent that ten minutes into it the woman couldn’t take it anymore, and veered off script. Was there something wrong? Was the Director ill? Did the equipment not fit the specs? Had, God forbid (and this the vendor did not say out loud, her commission in the balance), the process of setting up the Unit been stopped by some last-minute financial or bureaucratic nightmare?

David almost relented, but thought better of it. There was nothing the representative could do, not anymore. It would have helped if she had replied promptly to the appeals rival suppliers had made, trying to overturn the results that gave her company the winning bid on the Unit. But in a time of crisis all business matters, and this was a huge contract, plus maintenance, updates and consumable contracts for years to come. The other companies had not merely put in the usual token effort just to signal their displeasure, but had taken the time (and lawyers) to prepare very solid arguments that took months to resolve. Months that had changed everything.

So David tried to summon the proud grin he’d worn almost permanently about a year ago, when the key financing came through, when the Unit became one step closer to reality, and he was officially awarded the Director position: simultaneously the putative summit of his career as a scientist, and the end of it, fading into the fog of administration.

It was fine though, with this new facility they would be able to get much more out of both the basic and clinical research arms at the University, bring people from disparate fields together, potentiate collaborations, move decisively into translational research, services to companies, perhaps clinical trials, if all went according to plan. This should lead to more grants, better papers, more financing, more prestige for the University as a whole. Even if David would not be involved in all (or any) of the many projects he would be fine; at some point one has to look beyond one’s own massive ego. If this were the States the Unit would probably be named after him, but, then again, he’d worked in several such facilities during his PhD in Boston with no inkling as to who the names above the doors actually represented (usually rich benefactors). Things fade.

As did the representative’s voice; although David now looked the Director part, she sensed that something was amiss. She’d have to find out via one of her regular informants at the University – you don’t have a winning bid if you don’t play the network, in science as in anything else.

But it couldn’t have anything to do with the sale itself, she suddenly realized. Some of the parts of the future Unit had already been shipped to the University warehouse, the others were being made to order. None of this would have happened if the funding had not already cleared the many legal hurdles, and arrived safely in her company’s bank account. Whatever problem was eating at the Director it would not take a bite out of her commission.

So she went back to the grin she’d worn ever since the results had been upheld by the review panel, collected her laptop and suitcase, bid a polite farewell. Allowing David to finally drop his fabricated smile as he accompanied her out of the building, rasping his knuckles on the small, almost invisible, tokens of misery that were haunting him; signs he was sure no one else but he could fully understand. As he returned, however, he took the time to stop by each and every one. Not because he was craving punishment, not to make sure this was not just a bad dream. Just hoping for some magical solution to pop up. At least that’s what he told himself.

On the bulletin board David suppressed for the umpteenth time the urge to rip out the Dean’s announcement that the University had been named World Heritage site, finally old enough to be a classic, not just necessarily overripe. Next was the “Exit” sign in several languages that had been put up in the corridor, to guide the suddenly abundant tourists that had wandered from the Heritage Experience Tour to the wrong part of the building by mistake. Finally, the several notes posted on broken equipment and cracked windows, essentially prohibiting any action be taken until properly vetted by the Heritage Commission. A memo had circulated to the same effect in terms of moving furniture, or hanging posters and announcements in any visible space. This was no longer University space; it now belonged to the World (that was an actual quote). Even taking out the trash was not a simple matter: it had become Heritage trash. So David’s challenge had morphed into how to establish a top-notch multidisciplinary facility and do outstanding science in what was now, essentially, a Museum.

What he could never explain to the company representative was how hard it had been. She would not have understood, or cared. It was like a local joke, incredibly funny, but only for the initiated. Well, maybe that was not the best analogy…

During the Dean’s reelection campaign three years ago, she had set up a forum to address how the University might best apply for available funding in the next five years, what the priorities should be, what to invest in, how to move forward in the several Global University Rankings. The Psychology Department wanted live imaging facilities, the Medical School a better clinical trials unit. Life Sciences were into all sorts of “omics”, Chemistry wanted to be able to more rationally design and test drugs and enzymes, Physics and Mathematics requested better computers and brand new clusters to build and test models, the Engineering Department was into robotics and 3D printing. And everyone wanted more and better people. The Dean soon realized that any three of those individual projects would likely exhaust the predicted budget of competitive grants the University could count on, and was starting to weigh her options in terms of choosing who to disappoint when David stepped up.

Despite not fully understanding their presentations, at the forum David had noticed that all his colleagues were great at talking, but couldn’t listen to save their lives. So he listened. And read, researched the strategies of top-level institutes, wrote countless drafts, drew schematics, flow charts. And came up with a simple idea. There was no way the University would be able to cater to all individual needs, but maybe they could figure out a good collective solution, that, without giving anyone exactly what they wanted, gave everyone something, and, if done right, became much greater than the sum of individual parts. Just put different types of people in the same room, part of one same facility. Make them collaborate. In the silence of his office, listening to The Tindersticks, Tuxedomoon and The XX, David laughed out loud at that part. Nope, that wouldn’t work, certainly not in a viable timeframe. It would be like fielding a soccer team made up entirely of strikers, a football team with only quarterbacks.

So David met all key Professors and Department Heads individually, but made a simultaneous hard sell directly to the power brokers: the Dean, the financing entities, the Government. His strategy was somewhat bipolar: internally he got everyone on board a loosely collaborative project made of several units; externally it was presented as a sole independently managed Unit with different key pieces of equipment that all “collaborators” would have to bow down to if they wanted in.

When support came through it was under his guidelines, carefully leaked as though coming straight from the Authorities. No separate kingdoms, one University Unit, or nothing at all. Once the main financers were on board, others came running – it became a self-fulfilling Unit. Of course it made perfect sense: a comprehensive multidisciplinary facility had to be independent, or risk being hijacked by any one of its individual parts. It made sense, but that did not mean that those parts were not royally pissed off when they read the final business plan and governance structure.

Which David had kept away from everyone until the main submission deadline, when it was too late to change anything.

In fact, most Professors and Department Heads were livid, angrily demanding urgent meetings. Except by then the Dean had put her stamp of approval, David had been anointed. It was either go with the flow and get something out of it, or risk not only looking like a spoiled brat, but losing credibility as a team player for future University projects. It had been such a tour de force move that David did not even bother to fake the modesty.

Until the wheels set in motion by the damned Humanities, Media and Architecture Departments had unexpectedly turned the place into a Museum right in front of his very eyes, before the Unit could be made fully operational.

What had the representative said? “Just take out a few benches and counter tops, install gas lines and cables connecting to the cluster, reinforce the power, add a backup generator and surge controllers, work on the loading dock and improve patient accessibility, maybe knock down the partitions.”


Each one of those things would now require individual approval from the Heritage Commission, reports by at least one architect specialized in historical sites, most likely negative on any intervention (that was their default setting). Costs would soar and deadlines would need to be extended forever. Museum time is not the same as regular, functional, time. That’s the whole point.

Worse, Museum time also gave the naysayers he had previously tricked or debated into exhaustion ample opportunity to crawl back from under their respective rocks and try to revert to the previous plan, transform his dream of an inclusive, transversal and multidisciplinary Unit into smaller less useful parcels, each ruled by its own chiefs that would speak to each other only when convenient. The MDs and Psychologists with their patients, the Physicists and Mathematicians with their models, the Chemists with their molecules, the Biologists with their cells, the Engineers with their machines. David could end up being defeated by unruly fragments of the beautiful Goliath he had conceived. Plus, everyone was going to blame anything bad on him, of course. And the Dean, enamored with the revenue Tourism was suddenly bringing in, would be hesitant to support David full throttle; she too would stop to think, consult, ask for other opinions.

Ease into Museum time.

But that, he realized, was not something David was willing to allow. Not now, after all the hoops he had both made up and then elegantly jumped through. He’d apply for any extra setup funds available, get the company representative on board to lower costs (by convincing her that the alternative was forfeiting everything), build up a cushion to deal with delays, start all the work orders he could possibly think of to get the building ready for the Unit, flood the Heritage Commission with requests, harass them politely, maybe try to find a friendly architect to write the reports. Progress should not be stopped by History, at least not mediocre History run by bureaucrats that dealt earnestly with wall colors, refused to remove outdated equipment, broken furniture or rusty air conditioners, and had to design and approve elaborate ways to hide cables in places no tourist would ever think of visiting.

Tourists could stick to the Heritage Tour Experience, pay good money to explore the historical collections and equipment that was only relevant for that particular purpose at this stage. While David got busy helping them to live better and longer, as well as providing a head start for the Museums of tomorrow. As long as the crowds politely followed the arrows on the “Exit” signs he would have no problems with them at all.

The group of French tourists that snuck up on him were doing exactly that, trying to figure out which way the arrow was pointing as David had his latest epiphany in front of the “Exit” sign. And, of course, the group immediately asked him to take a picture. Not of them though, they wanted a picture with of him with them.

It was not as if he had something better to do; he hadn’t even taken the Heritage Tour yet. The group guided him upstairs somewhere, where a few old centrifuges, decommissioned spectrophotometers, computer parts and other miscellaneous stuff had been arranged by some (apparently) famous artist into an installation with a name like “Slivers of Undeserved Immortality”, or some such nonsense. David had forgotten that he was in his rarely worn pristine lab coat, looking sharp and scientific for the company representative.

But hey, why not? Perhaps he should ask for tips. At this stage any contribution to the cause might help.

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© 2016 by the author

Dedicated to Professor Arsélio Pato de Carvalho, with utmost respect and admiration

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