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Science: How fiction can help science tell the truth

EUROPEAN LITERATURE and plays have, with rare exceptions, not been kind to science; they certainly have made no contribution to science. So it comes as a surprise to find, in a recent issue of the prestigious American journal Science, that several pages of a play, An Immaculate Misconception, are reproduced.

This is a play written by Carl Djerassi, the distinguished chemist who first synthesised the birth control pill. It deals with ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) a technical advance on in vitro fertilisation; instead of adding millions - and it requires many millions - of sperm to an egg in a dish in order to fertilise it, a single sperm is injected direct into the egg. ICSI is thus a powerful tool to counteract male infertility and more than 10,000 babies have been born using the technique since it was introduced in 1992.

Djerassi's play, which contains beautiful video footage of ICSI taking place, is about a woman reproductive biologist who thinks she may have left it too late to have a baby. She decides to use herself for the first ICSI experiment but instead of obtaining sperm from an anonymous donor, secretly plans to take some sperm, without his knowing it, from her lover, Menachem. Unfortunately, she does not know that he is infertile and that the sperm, unknown to her, comes from her colleague. Clearly there are lots of ethical issues, not least as to what to tell her son, who believes Menachem to be his father. The play thus provides an understanding of an important new means of assisted reproduction as well as a valuable means of raising ethical issues. What is so important is that the play is written by someone who really understands the science.

But then, Djerassi is unusual in having turned to literature, possibly owing to his love-affair with a professor of literature. He found that it gave him a chance to do something completely different, for fiction is the antithesis of science. Scientists are not allowed to say "I made it up", but a writer can brag about it. Also, unlike scientific papers, which are ephemeral, literature can be read again and again. In his first novel, Cantor's Dilemma, the main character is less interested in science than in personal success. Thus in this and his other novels, which he calls "science-in-fiction", he explores the world of science and the way scientists behave. They certainly long for recognition, for otherwise they would publish anonymously, thus whose name goes on a paper, and whose goes first, is a matter for quite bitter debate.

Djerassi has become increasingly concerned by what he sees as corruption within science - fraud, plagiarism, exploitation of the young. Not that these are all that common, but there is no really satisfactory way of dealing with such problems and bringing them out into the open. He has thus tried to use his science-in-fiction skills to help. At Stanford University, where he works, he is experimenting with a quite new way of opening up these issues and making it possible for young scientists to express their views. In traditional science the laboratory is rather hierarchical, and to express complaints about your seniors is not easy.

Initially Djerassi suggested that an anonymous evaluation of lab leaders by all the members of the lab might be a way forward, but that is so tricky that it is unlikely to work. The new idea is to use fiction.

He writes a story of a scientist whose lab is in trouble as information is being leaked to a rival lab and a crucial experiment is proving difficult to repeat, so a young worker's name is removed from a paper. The students then discuss this story, which can also include sex among the test-tubes. He asks the students to write their own fictional accounts, which are then submitted anonymously for discussion by the group. For some this was the only way they could express their problems.

Other universities are using similar ways of discussing ethical issues, such as honest reporting of results without leaving out uncomfortable data. This sort of literature could really help young scientists, and even older ones.

The writer is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London