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Beyond laboratory conditions

Daniel Glaser moves on

Jennifer Rohn 24 April 2006

Glaser, ready to engage the wider world

The moment I realized that papers in Nature could be bollocks was a key step in my disillusionment

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, Britain was exposed to an unusual two-part, insider’s-view documentary of laboratory science called Under Laboratory Conditions. recently caught up with its colorful presenter, Dr. Daniel Glaser, to find out more about him and the story behind the documentary.

Daniel Glaser was in the Bahamas when he received a call from his wife in the middle of the night. The BBC was trying to get in touch with him about a new program they wanted to produce.

"They already had the idea for Under Laboratory Conditions, and my name came up," he explains. "I thought it was a fabulous idea. The premise was to use television to promote the public’s understanding of modern science in a completely different way."

Glaser was in many ways an obvious choice for the producers. At that time he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London (UCL), a position he’d held for about six years, but he was also very actively engaged in Britain’s ‘Public Engagement with Science and Technology’ (PEST) movement. His CV in this arena is robust: in addition to radio, press and a few TV appearances, he co-founded London’s Café Scientifique (and helped set up a children’s version in collaboration with UCL); has given scores of lectures and workshops on the topic in multiple countries; was ‘scientist in residence’ in London’s Institute for the Contemporary Arts (ICA); and most recently, received a NESTA cultural leadership award to take a sabbatical in the Bahamas to work with their government to foster and preserve national culture.

"I get approached a lot for TV documentaries," Glaser told me, "But this was the first time I agreed. I saw that this was going to be an exposé, in which the real story of science would be revealed."

TV hasn’t really been ‘getting’ it, traditionally, according to Glaser. He thinks that popular science programs like Horizon seem to work backwards; they have a pre-existing dramatic mould into which they shoe-horn the content. But Under Laboratory Conditions was produced by the BBC’s Current Affairs unit. "They were news people, not science people," he says. "And this is key – it just wouldn’t have worked if it were being made by science producers."

Glaser says the producers already had a lot of ideas, but he ended up suggesting about half of the content – and there were far more ideas kicking around than they could possibly use.

"We didn’t want this to be a science program," he says. "We wanted it to be an anthropological portrait of a bunch of people – scientists – that had never been told. It was going to be curiosity driven – and above all, a human story. They needed a scientist guiding the audience through this world, and that was me. The only problem I came across with this concept was the producers wanting to make it clinically relevant – they wanted to have more stuff from patients. ‘We need more human interest,’ one of the producers said. To which I replied, ‘Scientists are human, and they are interesting – we don’t need crying babies.’ "

Normally scientists involved in scientific programs also have to fight with the producers to get enough science included, but Glaser found the opposite to be the case: "Funny that the scientist should be the one having to dumb it down! I kept asking for less detail – of course the science has to be correct, but only a scientist would know the best short-cut. You need to have that confidence to know which details actually obscure rather than facilitate your story."

Not only did the producers want more details, but they wanted dirt. "Worse, they wanted whistle-blowers," Glaser confesses. "I was a bit worried about control, and also that my people might end up hating me, especially if they managed to dig up some dirt about my own colleagues!"

As a matter of fact, the producers did get hold of a story which partly involved some UCL scientists, but which according to Glaser, was complicated and also risked becoming sensationalized, confrontational and inflammatory. "Happily," says Glaser, "we worked together to come up with a compromise treatment more in keeping with the anthropological tone of the rest of the piece."

In addition to helping dredge up the inside scoop on researchers, it was also important that Glaser’s credentials could give the BBC access to restricted sectors of the scientific establishment, sectors a television researcher could only dream of penetrating. The program includes brief scenes shot in the inner sanctum of the UK’s Royal Society, during its highly mysterious and secretive Fellow selection procedure, and in the UK Wellcome Trust, in which bigwigs choose which research projects should be funded—and thereby effectively, which labs will flourish and which will languish. During both of these scenes, Glaser whispers awed commentary into the microphone like a wildlife documentary narrator observing a rare assemblage of cheetahs at a midnight watering hole.

And then there was the scene in the lab of Professor Sir Philip Cohen, a famous biochemist at the University of Dundee. Cohen is notorious in the life sciences community for being a tough task-master, demanding that his team work astonishingly long hours. Cohen is by no means the only lab head of this sort; in the gossipy world of lab culture, everyone knows who they are, but the general public would probably have no idea. In some ways, it’s science’s dirty little secret, how lab workplaces in many part of the world simply are not in line with conventional employment law when it comes to work hours, breaks and holidays.

"I thought it was important for people to know that there were these kinds of scientists, and labs where you have to put in the hours," Glaser says. "It’s not necessarily wrong – everyone knows the score before they join the lab, and those who don’t want that sort of lifestyle just won’t come at all. But it’s not necessarily politically correct."

In addition to the planned drama, there were some powerful moments Glaser says were completely spontaneous. In one such scene, a man who dropped out of science is filmed returning to his old lab. As he flips through his worn experimental notebook, his hands are visibly shaking, and it’s clear he is deeply disturbed to find himself back in a world he felt he had to flee. In another scene, a Dutch researcher’s eyes slowly fill with tears as she describes her repeated failure to win a research grant. It is these humanizing elements that were the most impressive achievements of the film.

Another benefit of the program is the sheer variety of players who are inspected. Normally in a science documentary, you only meet the key players – the senior researchers wearing white coats when they probably haven’t performed an actual experiment in years, filmed in an office with a backdrop of books and scholarly journals. Glaser and the team went for a cross-section; yes, they profiled the obligatory Nobel laureate, but they also met younger lab heads and postdocs, editorial staff from Nature, science writers, and a group of PhD students down at the pub after a hard day at the lab. In one segment, Glaser even humors Rupert Sheldrake, a proponent of the ‘science’ of the paranormal, by agreeing to be one of his subjects. (There is a great scene when Sheldrake leaves the room and Glaser whispers into the microphone: "I feel strangely…hostile. Perhaps that will be a confounding effect in the experiment.")

The sounds and sights of the program were also innovative. The documentary’s scene transitions are interspersed with old 60’s and 70’s archive footage and accompanying audio of science and scientists in popular culture, shot through with the music of Django Reinhardt. The effect is wacky, flickering and edgy.

"Older people hated that," Glaser confesses. "My mum hated it. Most scientists I spoke to said it was terribly distracting. But I think it’s a generational thing. And it wasn’t neutral: everyone has an opinion on it."

According to Glaser, the style in some way references The Power of Nightmares, a 9-11 historical documentary by Adam Curtis which showed at Cannes last year, and one of his earlier films, The Century of the Self. And he liked this style particularly when it reinforced what the show was trying to say. "I really enjoyed the footage of the Skinner Box demonstrations," Glaser says. "In parallel, as animals were getting rewarded or punished for certain behavior in the old footage, the scientists we were featuring were undergoing the same sorts of tests, being tested by life. It was funny and revealing at the same time."

I ask Glaser a bit more about PEST, and how he has been able to juggle a scientific career with so much extracurricular activity.

"It’s difficult in the UK to get credit for doing public engagement," he says. "Although some institutes claim that such activities ‘count’ towards promotions, in reality only scientific publications matter – and engagement activities just distract from that single-minded pursuit. Universities first need to ‘get it’ – to understand why it’s necessary, and department heads need to allow their researchers time away from the bench. PEST is only going to work if we can penetrate local areas, underprivileged areas; it needs to be a grassroots effort or this will never work."

And its not just the time, but the money, that has to be arranged. Glaser believes that funding to allow scientists to devote a small amount of time to PEST activities should be written directly into all grants. Glaser is currently pushing to have the British research councils ringfence one percent of their funds for public engagement – and he says they are listening.

But for Glaser, all this is personally moot, as he has decided to leave research science. At the end of May, he will take up a full-time position at the Wellcome Trust as a manager in their Public Engagement Development Group.

"I think of my current situation," Glaser explains, "as the text paragraph postscript that rolls at the end of a bio-pic: moved to Kansas, raises chickens, hasn't touched tequila since. I will be responsible for looking at the public engagement activities that Trust-funded scientists do, looking at science in broadcast media, and also at national science education policy. I will also have an actual boss, have to be in work at certain times, and manage a team of five. This is of course terrifying, but I am rather looking forward to it, and hope to be effective as well as happy in my newly incorporated self."

Is this a sudden decision or has it been brewing for some time?

"It’s not sudden," he says. "And interestingly, a lot of people knew this was going to happen before I did. There’ve been hints all along. When I was a third of the way through my PhD, there was this famous paper in Nature that was just wrong. The moment I realized that papers in Nature could be bollocks was a key step in my disillusionment. And then there was this guy in Oxford – he was the most brilliant scientist I knew, but he had to close his lab because he couldn’t get a grant. While I was in Bahamas I had time to reflect, and concluded that I had succeeded, in self-esteem terms, in letting active research science go. And in some ways, I think it’s fair to say that making Under Laboratory Conditions sort of crystallized the disillusionment."

Is the separation going to be painful?

"It’s not my style to badger away at one thing," Glaser says. "Even when I was fully committed to research, I was collaborating with loads of other people. I’ve had about half a dozen papers in major journals in the last five years, but I wasn’t the lead or senior author on any of them. In some ways this made me ‘unfundable’, but I do feel I’ve made a meaningful contribution to neuroscience."

He pauses, then adds: "Leaving science is like giving up a woman. But I’m not bitter – we’ve just grown apart."

Related information

Daniel Glaser has a website and a blog.