White coats don't lie ...

... do they? A new play about the market pressures on scentists may touch a raw nerve.

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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform