White coats don't lie ...

... do they? A new play about the market pressures on scentists may touch a raw nerve.
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The Independent Online
Al, the mediocre researcher suddenly promoted to head of department, is discussing the amazing work of his colleague Chris with his non-scientist girlfriend, Joanna. He should be elated for his colleague. She finds he is not.

"But you've seen it work, the demonstration; you've seen it," she says encouragingly.

"It's only - I can't see how he's done it," he answers. Realisation of the possibility of a far more interesting event - to a non-scientist - dawns. "If it was a fake - Jesus! A fraud ..."

And it is. In Stephen Poliakoff's new play, Blinded by the Sun, which opens at the National Theatre next Tuesday, the perpetration of a fraud is used to explore the pressures on scientists. For whereas financial fraudsters are lured by money and greed, fraudulent scientists cheat themselves above all. What makes them do it?

Poliakoff says, "The play isn't anti-science. It's anti what surrounds science It's about the long-distance creator being in danger, which I think is true in most fields, but particularly in science, where it really matters."

Chris (played by Duncan Bell) is a young researcher who claims to have invented a device that uses sunlight to liberate hydrogen from water as a limitless source of energy - shades of "cold fusion". He cheats partly to achieve fame, but also because he feels overwhelming pressure to achieve a result.

The career of Al (Douglas Hodge) prospers from his manipulation of the ensuing fiasco. He is an opportunist but also a good administrator and judge of merit - not least of Chris's results, which he wants confirmed.

Elinor (Frances de la Tour) is the senior member of the laboratory. Highly respected and liberally funded for great work done many years before, she is allowed to pursue her own project and resents being asked much about it. "I can understand having a history of achievement and expecting because of that to have bought time to go on, even if you are not delivering 'box office'," says Poliakoff. "That attitude is fascinating because it has a lot of right on its side, but it also makes people jolly cross."

In the play, Elinor cannot countenance the idea that Chris may have cheated; she advises Al to do nothing.

Poliakoff is well placed to understand these dilemmas. One of his distant cousins was Rosalind Franklin, the crystallographer who played a vital part in discovering the structure of DNA, but was robbed of her share of glory. His brother Martin is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. His sister is a doctor.

He believes that today's research environment, where work must increasingly demonstrate "relevance" and be delivered to deadlines, can only increase the temptation to fraud. He cites the case of biologists who used felt- tipped pens to exaggerate tumours grown on mice as an example of the opportunism that begins to eat away at scientific truth. "There is an impatience for things to show a return," he says.

Some work seems more relevant than it is - for instance, the tissue in the shape of a human ear that was grafted on to the back of a mouse, with its false implication that such tissue could be grafted onto a human. Other work hops aboard spurious bandwagons. "When Jurassic Park came out, scientists working in that field popped up and said they could bring back dinosaurs. Is it a total coincidence that this Mars discovery has come out when Independence Day is [a] box-office hit?"

In the play, Al realises that "most work should be geared to the marketplace" - but that not all work can be expected to deliver predicted commercial benefits within known time-frames.

This is already understood by many of those who direct science funding. "Most of all, we still need idiosyncratic, pioneering research with no commercial importance," says Philip Harrison of Parexel International, who undertakes fundamental research for pharma- ceutical firms. "But that research must be dovetailed into the world of commerce."

Scientists themselves hold differing views of how to do this dovetailing. Professor Fraser Stoddart of Birmingham University believes scientists should be held more accountable, assessed by criteria such as papers published and their "impact factors". "It can be compared to the kind of training needed to get a gold at the Olympics," he says. It is not enough just to turn up, and run the 100m. It needs long preparation.

But science is not so predictable. Sir Harold Kroto at the University of Sussex was the only British scientist involved in the 1985 discovery of buckminsterfullerene, the molecule that constitutes the third form of the element carbon, after diamond and graphite. The discovery was serendipitous and unfunded - rather like training for the 100m, but winning the weightlifting. Fortune, they say, favours the prepared mind. But prepared for what?

Once a discovery is made, many feel that the scientists who did the basic research should help realise its potential, although they are seldom the best people to lead the applied research. "Scientists at least understand their data better than anyone else," says Professor Kroto. "They have a duty to be involved at the interface of science and society and commerce."

Gerard Fairtlough, founder of the biotechnology company Celltech, agrees. "If a discovery is made in the course of curiosity-driven research which has applications, then it is the duty of the scientist concerned that it gets applied. It is entirely reasonable that the taxpayer should insist on the proper exploitation of a scientific discovery. I'm not asking that they should exploit it themselves, just that they ... hand it over to the right people."