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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

400 Million Dollars

I wanted to go with a more positive note today. Then I saw a report on a 400 million dollar planning experiment. In 1997 the Washington Department of Transportation set out to replace the 520 bridge that connects Seattle to the opposite side of Lake Washington. The old bridge remains in place. I couldn't go on with a positive attitude. A few gems from the research into the spending showed projections of starting construction in 2002 and 2004. Tolls were set and never put in place. Starting later this year (???) a toll system will be put in place with scanners and varying tolls based on the time of day. Out of towners will be billed (unbeknownst to them) by taking a photo of their license plate and sending them their bill for 5 dollars in the mail. I couldn't believe how badly local officials can do their job and get away with it. We are shutting schools down out here to save sums of money far less than 400 million dollars.

This is what a Cargo Cult does. They plan, they design, they talk and the use up resources with almost no regard to the actual goal. The cargo in this case is a bigger bridge that will ease congestion during peak travel times.

Allow me to digress and mention the "positive" story I was going to write about. It is related to the 400 million dollar bridge plan. I recently went to New England Biolabs (NEB) in Ipswich MA. NEB sells restriction enzymes for cloning DNA. They are a rare biotech company because they make money. They also use a portion of the money on environmental causes. For example, when planning to build their headquarters, they ran into the obstacle of three 200 year old Birch trees. They could have easily chopped them down. They spent over a million dollars extra to save the trees. The company is owned by one man, who at the age of 80 goes to work everyday in his own lab. The running of the company has been turned over to the younger generation. The old man conducts science in hopes of finding new ways of extracting energy from things like lobster shells.

The old man must have had a plan. He did not cash in and sell the company. As a result, the old man did not have to argue with investors over whether or not he could shell out the million plus to save three old trees. The employees could relax and do their jobs without fear of shutting down. Research tools were developed to help users use the products, free of charge. The plan was to make NEB synonymous with molecular biology while respecting employees/customers and our world.

What then can we say about the 400 million dollar bridge plan? There is a lot that can be learned from the investment. The problem however, is that the lessons are considered negative. We want to be positive. We want a bigger bridge. We don't want to sit around bickering about who wasted what and why we didn't stop them. Yet that is important to know.

It is the study of the Cargo Cult. The cargo in this case is a bigger bridge. After 13 years and 400 million dollars, we still have the same old bridge. But that is not all we have. We have 13 years of plans. You can research this. Surely something went wrong. It is not negative to want to find out why. The bridge planning leadership will accuse the Cargo Cult Scientists of seeking to judge and blame, but a science merely seeks the truth.

So I am left wondering two things: 1) Why did New England Biolabs succeed? 2) Why did WSDOT fail? There are concrete logical practices that could explain both.

1 comment:

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