It’s been a while since I wrote about the ridiculous administrative burden that is gradually sucking. the. will. to. live. of everyone in academia. Today I want to focus on a specific example… what happens when the IT people take a reasonably simple task, and strangle it the complete fuck to death?
It starts out with a relatively simple problem… we use animals in my lab’, so we’re required to have animal protocols in place. The body administering these protocols is called UCAR – the University Committee on Animal Resources [Fun fact – it’s almost always called IACUC at other institutions, but our UCAR is actually one of the oldest, so its been around since well before that naming trend emerged].
One of my animal protocols is up for annual renewal – a simple series of 3 questions that could be handled in a 30 second email – Is the protocol still active? Has anything changed since last year? How many animals have been bred and used since the last renewal? There’s a far more comprehensive review process every 3 years, or if you need to change/add anything, but so long as you’re just trucking along and everything is in compliance then the annual protocol renewal is as close as it gets to a rubber stamp affair – until the IT department gets involved…
UCAR has a simply wonderful (!) online interface for dealing with submission and processing of protocols. It’s called TOPAZ – but don’t click that link in Firefox because it will crash your browser, even if you have the correct Silverlight plug-in installed! One time, TOPAZ went down “for weekend maintenance”, and when it came back on-line the following Thursday, all the menus were in German. The site can best be described as a total clusterfuck – pasting text in there from other documents causes huge formatting problems; menu scrolling is a disaster; navigation to utterly counter-intuitive. All really simple “web design 101” stuff, but when you have a virtual monopoly on this sort of product, you don’t have to give a shit about the customer experience!
But today that’s not the problem. Oh no, today I had to spend 15 minutes trying to find the frickin’ link to TOPAZ (yeah yeah I should have it bookmarked, but I just replaced my computer and didn’t migrate everything yet). Anyway…
The Website Overhaul
Until recently, there used to be a simple web interface at URMC, but recently the IT folks have been overhauling everything. Something to do with branding and other concepts way above my pay grade. As highlighted by this XKCD comic, University websites are renowned for providing zero of the information people actually visit them for. At URMC, they’ve taken it to a whole ‘nuther level. This is what you see at the main page…
That’s a normal size browser window, taking up 2/3 the width of a 1440×900 wide-screen monitor. See any menu bars? See anything worth clicking if you actually WORK at the place? No. To get to the good stuff you have to scroll past all the PR bunk to the end of the page…
See anything there about resources or other useful links for researchers (such as a link to UCAR?). BOOM! Of course, how could I have missed it? See that little thing at the top right of the main page (in the last-but-one image)? That’s a menu link. Someone (probably working on a 21″ iMac) thought it would be a good idea to have the menu options that appear on a regular webpage collapse into a small icon if the browser is below a certain width. If only I’d widened my browser to full screen width, this is what I would have seen at the top of the page…
OK, let’s follow that “research” link, and go to Resources for Researchers. Nope, nothing there. What about Shared Resource Laboratories? No, that’s all the core facilities. What about the listing of Departments and Centers? Well it’s not under U for UCAR. Maybe A for animal? Bingo – Animal Resource, and it has a link to UCAR’s page…
But is there a link to TOPAZ? No. Maybe it’s in that menu thing over on the top right? No. Oh, but wait, TOPAZ only works with Internet Explorer, let’s fire that up before we get too far down the rabbit hole in FireFox.
Same deal. Oh but look, in addition to that menu thing in the top right, there’s a little “+” sign. It wasn’t there in FireFox (see above). Hmm… wonder what that does?
Right there – 4th item down the menu – “Animal Use Protocols”. Click that, and you get a page describing protocols, but still no link to the submission site! Oh, but now you’re on the protocol page, go back up to the “+” sign again and click it to expand.. Now there’s a new menu item below Animal Use Protocols… “Submit Protocol Online” It wasn’t there before.
OK. Clicking that link brings you to this page, where you can click the link to log into TOPAZ. If you’re lucky, TOPAZ might launch the first time, or it might crash, but it usually works the second or 3rd time.
Oh but it’s not over yet.
Having wasted my time on this, I decided to file a complaint with web services. (another 5 min. to find the appropriate link, since it’s not listed under any of the obvious headings such as IT or Computing).
As expected, there’s no number to call, no contact email address, just a button to click to File a Support Ticket. That brings up this window, which requires log-in (same user ID as for TOPAZ, which incidentally is the same user ID for email, the HR system, a bunch of other internal sites, plus WiFi access – can you say security risk?) Anyway, you click “New Ticket” and the browser crashes! Mother fucker!
Some people question why I run my own lab’ website instead of entrusting it to the institution. In future I will simply direct them to this blog post.
More super happy fun admin times as a professor…
(1) We’re trying to hire a new post-doc’ who’s on an H1B visa. By last count I’m up to 52 emails between myself, the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, my Department, and the International Services Office.
(2) We also recently hired a new lab tech’ from another lab’ where the PI is moving away. The logistics of doing this were a total nightmare, including a lovely 45 minute ‘phone call with HR to be briefed on the nuances of NY state labor law. Whether this person will get their first paycheck on time is still up in the air.
(3) A lag in ledger reporting on a soon-to-finish grant, led what was thought to be a $5k surplus in need of urgent spend-down, turning into a $4k deficit in the space of a week. The phrase “it hasn’t hit the ledgers yet” keeps me awake at night.
(4) All the same old crap I wrote about before is still there piling up, getting in the way of my ability to actually DO science.
We all have a duty, as scientists and university faculty, to fight this continual onslaught of administrative BS. If you haven’t read this book, do so, and get angry.