Socio-technological Learning Lab

One of the things I enjoy about working at Fera is putting science in the hands of someone who can do something useful with it. As part of the LWEC funded tree health project we have been more active than usual in bugging end users about technology, spurred on (should that be nagged??) by Glyn and his merry band of social scientists aka Mariella and Rehema.

Recently, that included organising a 'learning lab' with plant health inspectors at Heathrow and Southampton. An opportunity for some serious quality time between the scientists and inspectors to understand the logistics of import inspection and the challenges inspectors face day-to-day. We started off at Heathrow with some background on the technologies and lunch in west London's best greasy spoon cafe before heading off to the inspection sheds. This was an eye opener to the project partners to see not just how busy the sheds are, but also the amount, diversity and speed with which produce comes through transit. We all got involved in inspecting aubergines and just one inspection demonstrated how important tools that could help find infected or infested material really could be. Finding anything with a hand lens clearly takes years of practice and at low infestation rates is like the proverbial needle in a haystack.

The next day we found ourself in the UK's second largest container port at Southampton, recently knocked off the top spot by London Gateway. We had a fantastic tour by one of the site managers who didn't seem phased by our many and varied questions, including those inspired by watching one too many seasons of The Wire on Netflix. Contrary to what we had thought, accessing containers (or boxes to those in the know) of imported controlled material is easy and they are located on ship and moved to the inspection site using a combination of unique numeric codes on each box and GPS, good news for the teams investigating detection of volatile gases, that may be released from infected material. The fact that the containers containing “handicrafts” made from plant materials are also fumigated with large amounts of phosphine came as a surprise, and we're not sure how this may impact the sniffing technology. Unlike much of the material at Heathrow which is destined for local markets, the controlled material at Southampton is mostly of very high quality destined for supermarket shelves and rarely results in interceptions.

I'm still confused by the difference between controlled and uncontrolled material, not least because the latter generates more interceptions at Heathrow yet locating it in containers at sea ports is a fools errand. Everything at the port is about big numbers from the massive ships to the container movers (think hybrid lorry / crane) zipping around the site, it's like a real life game of Top Trumps. Though it was slightly depressing to hear that the acres of containers awaiting transit back to the far east are all completely empty - except the ones containing stolen to order cars! The learning lab was not only a couple of enjoyable days out for the scientists and inspectors, but great for steering future technology developments and well worth the investment in time. Thank you Glyn, Mariella and Rehema, you were right all along, I just need to convince Kelvin to help me organise another one at London Gateway - Top Trumps anyone!