Path to efficiency is regulation

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By John Bartlit

Year after year, mining and petroleum operations and motor vehicle manufacture steadily improve their methods, tools and products. These advances do not happen by whim or by chance.
Behind the steady climb in efficiency are colleges that develop curricula and supply trained mining engineers, petroleum engineers and automotive engineers. The course work begins with the fundamentals of applied science and proceeds to the technologies of the named industries.
In their fields, the schools also do original research projects that produce new knowledge and tools. Efficiency is driven by basic disciplines, application of basics and inventions from applying basics.
The same path is the way to make regulatory systems efficient.
The steps are clear. We need schools to supply regulatory engineers trained in the basics of engineering, with a major in regulatory applications. We need schools doing research to develop new regulatory knowledge and more powerful tools.
This column examines new products of research that build efficiency in tasks of all kinds. Imagine if tools were created so regulating was done more surely in less time for less money. Surprising things are possible.
For instance, imagine an instrument that is held beside a cow to report and record the safety of its meat and milk. Or imagine a light beam that records and reports traits of air emissions from an exhaust stack.
Imagine an automated real-time report on the state of risks in a nuclear plant.
Most of us cannot imagine such things. But then most of us cannot devise a meter that is held beside an air traveler to detect and report a spectrum of trace chemicals used in bomb making. The meter exists. Imagine that!
Most of us can’t devise chips to build into a bridge that measure and report the changing strength of the bridge materials. Such chips exist.
Most of us can’t devise computer software that searches in company documents for adverse information in a court trial. This too exists.
This short list of regulatory tools is a start that has no end. These are the Model T Fords that the next generation will build on.
All regulatory tools do not need utmost accuracy. Being cheap, efficient and reliable meets other needs. New tools might monitor a threshold value or report an emission change of a certain amount.
Advances in one field suggest applications in another, when we look.
Wonders have myriad forms. Two news reports describe recent advances that could boost regulatory efficiency.
Item No. 1: A constant task of food inspectors is to keep the growth of bacteria at bay. In the last few years, outbreaks of food-borne illness, including deaths, made gloomy days for buyers and sellers of lettuce, cantaloupes and peanut butter.
Finding the cause and source of such dangers requires days of laboratory culture using complex biological samples, while the harm and the risk remain in the news.
Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a technique that eliminates the need for laboratory culture and speeds the detection process.
The method makes use of unique traits of live bacteria, in particular their critical need for access to the nutrient iron. Other oddities of nature are involved — siderophores, iron sequestration, and fluorescence staining.
Start with a string of knowledge, add a few ideas and more efficient tools appear.
Item No. 2: The four-year-old Wyss (pronounced “veese”) Institute at Harvard has had success in developing “living” computer chips. A “living” chip combines live human cells with more usual chip circuitry.
In many uses, a single chip now functions as a computer system. By the same token, a “living” chip can function as a human organ. The Wyss Institute has created a living lung-on-a-chip, a heart-on-a-chip, and most recently a gut-on-a-chip.
To what end you ask. “Living” chips have good prospects for engineering faster, cheaper testing of new drugs and the effects of pollutants.
Imagine more.