Move over The Bill, here comes The Lab

May 17, 1996

Stuffed to the gills with doctors and police officers, television drama misses out on the appeal of science. Olga Wojtas discovers a plan to correct this.

Bob Robinson, professor of biological sciences, is a driven man. But he has never made a major scientific discovery, no syndrome or technique bears his name, and he feels he is being overtaken by bright, brash youngsters. His research on the link between the sun and skin cancer is his last chance to make his mark, but his results are stolen by his ex-wife, also his former research assistant, in a bid to publish first.

Meanwhile he is involved in the biosphere experiment. He is monitoring attempts to breed a super race, a bid to prove that humans can colonise Mars. The project is morally dubious, but his university has abandoned its scruples since the scheme has attracted vast amounts of external funding.

Thankfully, Professor Robinson exists only on the pages of a script by television writer Lawrence Gray, grand prix winner of the first Public Awareness of Science drama award. PAWS aims to create new television drama based on contemporary science. It offers Pounds 2,000 grants to scriptwriters - beginners as well as the more experienced - to develop dramas with a science or engineering theme. Its sponsors include the Committee on Public Understanding of Science, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Institute of Electrical Engineers, and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Public understanding of science campaigns may be reaching a wider audience, but it is still an audience which already has some interest in science. Barrie Whatley, one of the project directors, believes that the only way to reach "science phobics" is through drama.

The aim is not to explain the nuts and bolts of science, but to focus on personal interactions and conflicts, Mr Whatley says. Science has plenty to offer in this area, but most writers know nothing about its potential. PAWS has been hosting seminars at which scientists and engineers tell prospective writers about their life and work.

More than 150 ideas were submitted in last year's competition, narrowed down to six prizewinners. Two of the four judges were television drama professionals, while the other two, Jim Barber, professor of biochemistry at Imperial College, and Brian Manley, senior vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, policed the scripts for technical accuracy.

"I have to see that it's got a legitimate scientific base, but it's quite difficult for me as a scientist, because I also have to realise that what's wanted is popular and attractive drama," says Professor Barber. "Good science in itself may seem rather dull, like a documentary."

Dr Manley says: "Look at what It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet did for veterinary applications." The quality of drama is essential if it is to lead to student recruitment, he says.

Professor Barber was opposed to one of the winning entries, The Virtual Reality Whorehouse by first-time writer Buzz Rodwell, a thriller set in the 21st century, which questions whether a murder has been committed in reality or virtual reality. "It would make an excellent movie. But it wasn't what I thought PAWS was about - bringing current science to the general public. It was science fiction, although on the other hand you could argue virtual reality is with us now."

He hopes the PAWS scheme will help obliterate the popular image of scientists as elderly men in white coats who are going to destroy the world, and instead present scientists as normal people carrying out a job which is not radically different from other professions.

"The general public do have some understanding of popular drama based in hospitals and police stations, but scientists are a remote bunch," he says.

He is not confident that many scientists will themselves turn to scriptwriting to combat this remoteness, because of the danger that they will be thought by their peers to lack rigour.

"David Bellamy has been a successful presenter of science through television, but he lost his credibility as an academic," he says. "Some scientists - and personally I don't like this - are very critical of individuals who are seen to be a little bit superficial, and writing drama would be seen as superficial. You don't advance your career by being too PR-ish."

The majority of PAWS applicants are non-scientists. Professor Barber insists that they must do their research, and says that PAWS seminars give them insight into technicalities. "They need to get the science right and then write the plot, not try to fit it in afterwards."

British-born Lawrence Gray, creator of the unhappy Professor Robinson, is not a scientist, but lives on the campus of the Chinese University in Hong Kong, where his wife is a researcher in pharmacology. "I live in a building full of professors, and I've lived with grant applications and conferences and the general rivalry of scientists for a considerable number of years."

Elements of science occasionally appear on television in different guises, he says, but nobody has tackled it from the "inside", concentrating on academic life. He was always fascinated by the laboratories in C. P. Snow novels, and has found lab work has its own, somewhat adolescent, humour. But in his experience, the need to bridge Snow's two cultures is one-sided.

"Scientists, at least the ones I find in Hong Kong, are multilingual and very well read. It's important that nonscientists understand what science is actually attempting to do. Science is not about making a statement, it's about creating models of reality, which we use in order to plan what we require in our lives, and this is very often what we can do rather than what we should do."

The other judges for the project were surprised that Professor Barber liked Gray's script, which has now been commissioned by the BBC as a six-part comedy series. Their reservations were understandable, given the theme of paranoid professors and treacherous researchers. But its merit was indisputable, according to Professor Barber: "It was funny."

The closing date for outline ideas for PAWS 1996 is June 7. Further information from project directors Barrie Whatley and Andrew Millington at Omni Communications, Osborne House, 111 Bartholomew House, London NW5 2BJ. Tel: 0171 267 2555. Fax: 0171 482 2394.

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