Getting samples - and scammed

For oceanographers Jess Adkins of California Institute of Technology and his then-postdoc Kim Cobb (now at Georgia Institute of Technology), the trouble began when they hired a well-connected local to handle logistics and navigate bureaucracy while they collected samples from caves in Malaysian Borneo. Adkins and Cobb were collecting drip water, bedrock and stalagmites for the Pacific Tropical Climate Study, which they hope will help integrate climate data with geochemistry. Such

Stuart Jacobson
Jan 31, 2007

For oceanographers Jess Adkins of California Institute of Technology and his then-postdoc Kim Cobb (now at Georgia Institute of Technology), the trouble began when they hired a well-connected local to handle logistics and navigate bureaucracy while they collected samples from caves in Malaysian Borneo. Adkins and Cobb were collecting drip water, bedrock and stalagmites for the Pacific Tropical Climate Study, which they hope will help integrate climate data with geochemistry.

Such an arrangement with a local isn't unusual, and the costs are generally included as overhead in grants. From California, the scientists negotiated a contract, settling on a price of $6,000. The local agent, Richard Hii, was recommended by American cavers who had worked with him before, and were joining the scientists on the trip. When they got to Malaysia, Hii greeted the group sporting sharp, tailored clothes and a greasy, slicked-back pompadour. He drove the biggest, newest, black BMW...

Hii said if the bill wasn't paid, the samples - and all of the scientists' hard work - would be confiscated by the police.

From Limbang, Cobb and the cavers flew to Miri. The cavers were to leave immediately, with Cobb spending a day inspecting and forwarding the samples to a shipper in Kuala Lumpur. Instead, Hii told several of the cavers about problems delaying their scheduled departure - apparently, there was an "official" inquiry relating to ambiguously-stated things that the cavers might have done or taken out of Malaysia during a prior visit, unrelated to the current trip. Then, miracle of miracles, Hii pulled some strings and rushed the cavers out of the country.

Cobb, now alone, received a bill for $16,000 from Hii - nearly three times the agreed-to price. Hii blamed "subcontractors" who had run the base camp and done some driving, and the extra "favor" he did by helping the cavers, says Cobb. Hii said if the bill wasn't paid, the samples - and all of the scientists' hard work - would be confiscated by the police. This was no idle threat; while waiting for his extra funds, Hii restricted Cobb's movements by shuttling her around, and "[he] had people in my [hotel] lobby watching me," Cobb recalls. Still, "my primary fear was for the rocks."

Cobb, as a postdoc, wasn't authorized to have any financial discussions with Hii. Adkins spent several anxiety-filled days of tense negotiation, even staying up all night to accommodate for the local time in Borneo. Finally, they compromised at $12,000. Adkins wired the "ransom money" to Hii in Miri, who released the samples and returned Cobb's passport.

The trouble didn't stop there, unfortunately: The samples' export permit, for which Hii was responsible, was, as Adkins says, "not even close to legal." Thus, when Cobb and the samples arrived in Kuala Lumpur, it took Adkins, several Caltech trustees, and the shipper another three months to straighten things out. Eventually, Adkins accumulated enough funds from other projects and from his general operating budget to "borrow from Peter to pay Paul" and complete the work, he says.

Cobb made two subsequent sample-gathering trips to Borneo. A trusted park ranger named Brian Clark handled some of the logistics, but Cobb supervised the permit work, and both trips were relatively stress-free. And the scientists are beginning to reap the benefits of the first trip, despite the hassles - they've collected the stalagmite climate data, and presented them at meetings in Romania and in San Francisco. They're currently preparing manuscripts for publication, and Cobb and Adkins will submit the first one to Nature. Still, the trip left Adkins with some sober advice for his colleagues: To avoid this type of trauma, "budget twice as much as planned" for local logistics, and "bring cash."

Clarification (posted 2/5/2007): When originally posted, this piece reported that Jess Adkins would be submitting the results of the team's work to Nature. He and Kim Cobb will both be submitting the paper.