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22/10/2014

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Review: Real engagement

Wendy Barnaby is hooked

Forget the consultations, quizzes, conferences, talks, café scis, stand-ups, meetings and workshops. Here’s a story that has two protagonists – science and people – which together engulf the reader in a drama. In the process, we learn more about the scientific method – that boring bit of business which scientists wish the public would understand – than all worthy engagement events will ever teach us.

Wendy Barnaby is hooked

Forget the consultations, quizzes, conferences, talks, café scis, stand-ups, meetings and workshops. Here’s a story that has two protagonists – science and people – which together engulf the reader in a drama. In the process, we learn more about the scientific method – that boring bit of business which scientists wish the public would understand – than all worthy engagement events will ever teach us.

Experiments on mice at a laboratory in Harvard show that a virus reverses the progress of breast cancer. The laboratory publishes the results to great acclaim. But one worker there thinks they were fraudulent, and refuses to be quiet.

That’s the nub of it. We read a lot about mice and their handling; how their tumours are measured; the keeping of the data; the way they’re sacrificed and so on. All of which might generally be a turn-off. We also hear about the difficulty of attracting research funds and the various bodies involved in the governance of science: ditto. What makes this a compulsive read is the human story.

The laboratory is led by two very different personalities: a charming, imprudent scientific salesman and a cautious, scrupulous researcher. The scientist whose virus is at the centre of the storm is desperate for success. His colleagues are variously jealous, cynical or detached. Intuition itself plays two roles: first, the whistle-blower’s intuition that the scientist had cheated. And a second which can’t be disclosed to avoid revealing the ending.

Eloquent
Some books or TV soaps try to alert us to issues through a thin veneer of fiction. This is not one of them. The way the characters and their families affect events, and are affected by them, is totally engrossing. There are no heroes or villains here. The inevitable inflation of the whistle-blower’s doubts from hesitant enquiries to full-blown Congressional sub-committee hearing, along with all the politics and media interest, is a progression that will be familiar to other scientists who unwittingly find themselves at the centre of national storms.
And there are lots of laughs. The daughters of one of the scientists go to a posh school, which ‘prided itself on its diversity. Students came from every sort of privileged background.’ And the way the salesman-scientist hijacks the Congressional hearing with accusations of anti-semitism is hilarious.

The book is eloquent about devotion to research and what that entails; the temptation to win the race by releasing results a bit too early; the finely-tuned relationships between colleagues; the psychology that sees a small remark hit a tender spot and blossom; the hard slog which can end in glory, oblivion or worse.

Science reporting
Most of us find science fascinating not only for its intellectual puzzles but also for the difference it can make to our lives. And journalists use that as a way of connecting with their audiences. ‘As a general principle, one may say that a book should be written in the language of its readers,’ wrote HG Wells in 1894.1 As with language, so with passions: appeal to the concerns of the people you want to engage! Start with your audience! The public deals in ideas. So if that means pointing beyond the immediate finding to the ultimate purpose of the project, so be it.

This book is to journalism as a stunning building is to a scatter of bricks. But both approach science as a human undertaking. Many scientists find this hard to stomach in the reporting of their work. ‘You’re claiming too much!’ they complain to journalists. ‘You’re dumbing down!’ Ironically, it’s this human approach that is so totally engaging, and which may enable the public to claim the scientific endeavour as its own.

1 H G Wells (26 July 1894), Popularising science,
Nature 50, 300-301 doi:10.1038/050300a0

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Wendy Barnaby
Wendy Barnaby is Editor of People & Science
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