I think I’ve always had certain stereotypes in my mind about research. I imagine a cutting-edge workplace, maybe not using the newest gadgets because these things cost money, but at least using the newest ideas. I imagine staff of research institutions applying the scientific method to boost their own productivity, instead of taking for granted the way that things have always been done. Maybe those were the naive ideas of someone who had never actually worked in a research field.
At the medical research institute where I work one day a week, I recently spent an entire seven-hour day going down a list of patient names, searching them on the hospital database, deciding whether they met the criteria for a study, and typing them into a colour-coded spreadsheet. The process had maybe six discrete steps, and all of them were purely mechanical. In seven hours, I screened about two hundred and fifty patients. I was paid $12.50 an hour to do this. It cost my employer 35 cents for each patient that I screened, and these patients haven't been visited, consented or included in any study. They're still only names on a spreadsheet. I’ve been told that I learn and work quickly, but I know I do this task inefficiently, because I’m not a simple computer program. I get bored. I make mistakes. Heaven forbid, I get distracted and start reading the nurses’ notes for fun because I find them interesting.
In 7 hours, I imagine that someone slightly above my skill level could write a simple program to do the same task. They wouldn’t screen any patients in those 7 hours, but once the program was finished, they could use it forever, or at least until the task changed and the program had to be modified. I don’t know how much it would cost the organization to employ a programmer; maybe it would cost more than just having me do it. I don’t know whether allowing that program to access the confidential database would be an issue. But it seems inefficient to pay human brains to do work that they’re bad at, that computers would be better at, even if those human brains belong to undergrad students who need the money badly enough not to complain.
One of the criteria I looked at when screening patients was whether they did their dialysis at a clinic in my hometown. They have to be driving distance, because my supervisor has to drive around the city and pick up blood samples to bring to our lab. I crossed out 30 names without even looking them up because I could see at a glance that they were a nearby city an hour’s drive away. How hard would it be to coordinate with the hospital in that city? Have the bloodwork analyzed there and the results emailed over? Maybe it would be non-trivially hard; I don’t know. I didn’t ask my supervisor because it isn’t my job to make management decisions. But medical research benefits everyone. A study with more patients produces data that’s statistically more valid, even if those patients live an hour’s drive away.
The office where I work is filled with paper. Floor-to-ceiling shelves hold endless binders full of source documents. Every email has to be printed and filed in a binder. Even the nurses’ notes and patient charts are printed off the database. It’s a legal requirement. The result is that we have two copies of everything, one online and one on paper, consuming trees. Running a computer consumes fossil fuels, of course. I don’t know for sure which is more efficient, paper or digital, but I do know that both is inefficient. I did ask my supervisor about this, and apparently it’s because digital records could be lost or deleted. How much would it take to make them durable enough?I guess that more than my supervisor, I see a future where software will do my job, where technology allows a study to be coordinated across the whole world, where digital storage will be reliable enough. But how long will it take for the laws and regulations to change? For people to change? I don’t know how many of my complaints are valid. Maybe this is the optimal way to do research, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like a papier-mâché of laws and habits and trial-and-error. It doesn't feel planned.