Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Publish and be damned (1996)

Theatre Review from the October 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Blinded By The Sun by Stephen Poliakoff (National Theatre)

Many people have very strange ideas about the nature of science and the behaviour of scientists. Television adverts, for example, tend to perpetuate the myth of scientists as seekers after “the truth”; dressed in spankingly-clean white coats, wearing regulation horn-rimmed glasses they stride the floors of massive laboratories piled to the roof with complex pieces of glass apparatus from which emerge ominous gurgling noises. More generally scientists are still seen as essentially impartial, rational, dispassionate individuals, engaged in uncertain laboratory experiments. The reality, however, is very different.

True some scientists are involved in fundamental research, an activity seemingly both intensely romantic and intellectually mysterious, but one which commonly involves little more than "crawling along on the frontiers of knowledge with a hand lens”, as Sir Eric Ashby famously had it. Most scientists are employees and, as the insatiable demands of capitalism for more profit take their remorseless hold, they are increasingly employed to solve mundane problems. As an onetime industrial chemist I can remember the quest to reduce the amount of mineral oil in a proprietary hair cream (from 45 to 44 percent as I recall), a subject which detained some of the best minds in the "research” department for several months; and later being involved in a similar attempt to save money by making the hair cream at lower temperatures.

Scientists, like the rest of the labour force are under pressure to produce—more research papers, books and consultancies in universities; more savings on routine analysis and safety control in public service laboratories; and more economically (i.e. profitable) outcomes in the brave new world of industry. Sometimes the pressures become too great and some scientists cheat. They produce fraudulent results.

Blinded By The Sun, a new play by Stephen Poliakoff at the National Theatre is about scientific fraud. Or is it? Poliakoff tells the tale as a detective story, but it is a story with an inconclusive ending. Did Christopher fake his results or was he simply the victim of pressures to publish? Certainly in contravention of the usual conventions he announces his spectacular triumph to the press—he has succeeded in producing hydrogen, a clean fuel, by irradiating water with sunlight—rather than describing his work in scientific literature and allowing his peers to repeat his experiments. But is his subsequent failure to confirm his results evidence of fraud or simply a quirk of fate? His high-flying colleague, Elinor, is in no doubt; he is entirely innocent. The laboratory manager—a pushy administrator under pressure to save a failing department—is suspicious. We are left to make up our own minds.

But if we are unclear about what happened, we are left in no doubt about the pressures which might have pushed Christopher towards faking his results. Problem-solving of the kind which underpins Christopher’s work is rather like solving a puzzle. The initial insight may seem conclusive: a solution is at hand and further work points to all the major difficulties being overcome. Ninety percent of the puzzle has apparently been solved, but the rest seems elusive. Perhaps time to announce your triumph to the world—before someone else gets there first—and manage the rest of the work later?

Writing in the programme David Jones draws parallels between the events of the play and a "recent scientific scandal which came close to fraud”. He notes that “Scientific frauds are not common, but they occur; indeed they are probably increasing. This perhaps reflects the growing pressure on scientists. Scientific research is no longer a hobby for a distinguished gentleman, but a career. Its motive is not only the search for understanding, but a quest for advancement and recognition in an overcrowded profession. Its rewards—grants, promotion, tenure, prestigious jobs, titles and other goodies, are fiercely contested.”

So, far from being dispassionate seekers after truth, contemporary scientists, wherever they are employed, are exposed to the same pressures as other workers. If they are not effective—if their work is not associated with profitable outcomes—they will be seen as unacceptable failures, and they may be dismissed.

Blinded By The Sun makes for a wonderful evening in the theatre. Poliakoff unfolds his tale with an effervescent élan which is entirely appropriate to a tale set in a science laboratory; a spirit matched by the performances of an excellent cast in a quicksilver production. Highly recommended.
Michael Gill

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