Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Cautionary Tale

This is a cautionary tale about how for the want of a valid email address a museum serving the East Bay community for 35 years was lost.

The museum in question is the Hall of Health. Based in Berkeley, California, this is an interactive, hands-on health museum and science center for children and families sponsored by Children's Hospital which funds the project. The museum's doors closed on July 18. Up until this time, the Museum hosted any number of innovative programs, for example, Brain Awareness Week, and demonstrated the real effects of diet and drugs on the body.

So what happened? I spoke with Lucy Day, PhD, who has served as director of the museum since 1992. According to Day, what happened was a domino cascade with all the pieces "falling the wrong way."

The proposal from the Hall of Health was no exception. Day had submitted the proposal to the National Institutes of Health a week in advance of the actual deadline on May 18th. In past years, she explained, the NIH always returned grant proposals before the deadline with an email message calling attention to a correction or omission before acceptance.

Oddly enough, this time none came. Day assumed that with all her past practice, the proposal had sailed through. But after the deadline had passed, staff inquired as to the status of the proposal, and received alarming news. NIH had never received the file. Everyone at the museum started to panic. And backtrack fast.

Day explained that there are only two people at Children's Hospital who are authorized to submit these proposals. An assistant to one of these individuals recognized that the materials needed to be sent to a Web address for completion of a form and then for the final push of a "Submit" button.

The $200,000 proposal was to pay for staff and funding for a health and biomedical science program for diverse communities, and also disseminating a fourth and fifth grade curriculum on issues that affect everyone, but in particular, statistically impacting Blacks, Latinos, and American Indian populations.

But the actual web address got confused with entering a valid email address for the museum. When the grant proposal was finally sent out, the URL was accidentally entered as an email address.

Still, the NIH returned an error message to inform staff about the correction. But as fortune would have it, the NIH message came back without an "@" symbol and was relegated into the spam folder on the Children's Hospital side of things. It seems as though the IT staff had not completed a newly installed firewall that could more finely distinguish between real email and spam.

Bert Lubin, MD, president and now CEO of Children's Hospital, called the highest people he could reach at NIH to see if there was anything they could do, especially since the information had been submitted before the deadline. NIH demurred. They explained that proposals had already gone through the peer review process, but they would keep the hospital in mind if additional funding money came through the ARRA (American Reinvestment and Recovery Act) pipeline for education programs.
Too late for right now. Dr. Lubin requested four months of a half-time salary from NIH to allow Day to complete a lesson plan book and CD of the science curriculum to ensure that this part of the museum's work would not be lost. Traveling exhibits are still doing the rounds at a number of other museums, including the Global Health Odyssey at the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Challenger Learning Center in California's Central Valley. After three years, the Hall of Health can reclaim its exhibits if it is able to reopen.

Keep your fingers crossed.

The takeaway? Day said, "If you're sending an important email message, always get a confirmation."

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