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A day in the life: scientists meet writers

Will this latest forum inspire more lab lit fiction?

Jennifer Rohn 21 October 2007

I almost fear this sort of honesty could backfire and turn off writers looking for a rip-roaring plot

A new venture to inspire more lab lit fiction has just been launched as a joint venture between the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC) and the writer’s organization English PEN. Known as Scientists Meet Writers (SMW), the project is an attempt to allow writers to learn a bit more about what particular types of scientists do and think.

If all this is sounding familiar, it’s because a similar, successful resource already exists: SciTalk, which was founded a few years ago by the scientists and novelist Ann Lingard with support from NESTA. Although it’s perhaps too early to compare, SciTalk is much more extensive: while the SMW database SMW has only fifteen scientist profiles posted to date, all limited to MRC-funded biomedical researchers, SciTalk has over a hundred and fifty from all branches of science, from atomic energy to zebrafish, in a searchable database containing over a hundred topics. According to Lingard, SciTalk has already facilitated a number of science-related novels and short stories.

So what can a writer learn from this new service? Laura Nelson from the MRC told me by email: “We wanted to include as much information as possible about day-to-day activities, high points and low points, because we thought that this would be of most interest to writers.”

And indeed, the SMR profiles do contain day-in-the-life information. In fact, I almost fear this sort of honesty could backfire and turn off writers looking for a rip-roaring plot when they read confessions such as, “I work in an office, spending most of my time mostly sitting at the computer trying to move projects along: emailing, trying to get funding, encouraging participants, setting up meetings…” Many of the scientists define a bad day as one when their papers are rejected for publication or they are bogged down in bureaucracy, while overcoming institutional politics often counts as a good day.

Such accounts may be honest, but I would have liked to have seen included moments of eureka, abject despair, skulduggery (no names mentioned, obviously) or blazing triumph in enough detail to make the prospect enticing – not least because PEN’s introductory remarks promise that science is all this and more:

The life of a scientist has the potential for scandal, rivalry, jealousy, power and ambition, as well as love, obsession and disappointment. Set this in the emotionally-charged environment of a laboratory or a hospital, where cutting-edge and world-changing discoveries are being made and there's a race to get there first; mix this with politics, and there's an intriguing plot waiting to unfold.

After such a breathless advertisement, the reality of the profiles falls a bit flat. Perhaps highlighting more young scientists, who are still working mostly at the bench and are as yet largely unburdened by stifling admin, could have overcome this problem. Alternatively, it might have been an idea for the MRC to hire a science writer to help the scientists draw out, in their own words, a more evocative picture than phrases like, “On a good day, everything will run perfectly and according to the plan. And, if the results are unexpected - that's amazing.” Also, there is very little physical description of what their labs actually contain – and as we know from TV shows such as Crime Scene Investigation, shiny kit is darned sexy to the masses.

Another aspect of the profiles might be even more problematic. Although the scientists do describe their research clearly and simply, I believe some of the science is still pitched a bit too high: phrases such as “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometers…make use of the magnetic properties of molecules to study their structures and interactions” may sound dumbed down to a scientist, but I know from experience that even the use of the word “cell” or “protein” in an otherwise normal sentence is enough to scare off a literary agent. Again, input from a science writer could have helped here.

Still, it’s early days, and it is not my intention to belittle this project nor detract from its possible impact. Although it's a shame (and a bit perplexing) that PEN and the MRC did not try to collaborate with SciTalk, welcomes any new venture that might increase the number of novelists including science and scientists in their plots. And the MRC thinks the benefits go both ways. As Professor Chris Ponting, professor of bioinformatics at the MRC Functional Genetics Unit in Oxford, who has a PEN profile in the project, put it: “As scientists, we strive to tell the general public how we are working to improve human health. What we may fail to appreciate, however, is how much the general public can help us reassess our research priorities. After all, it is their health that is at issue, and their money that is being used.”

Related information

You can check out the SMW profiles here. And if you don't find what you're looking for among those fifteen profiles, chances are that SciTalk has it. (SciTalk's scientists have also agreed in advance to allow lab visits, a distinct plus.)

If you’re interested in learning more or using the SMW service, contact Laura Nelson on writers[at]