My Blank Pages V: Raw Data

Raw Data: A novel on Life in Science by Pernille Rørth (Springer, 2016)

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I was keen to read this “lab lit” novel written by renowned cell biologist Pernille Rørth. I’d seen lots of enthusiastic comments about the book, and it didn’t disappoint.

I was frustrated to read two pieces about Raw Data on Retraction Watch and The Node, both of which gave the plot away with no warning, so if you haven’t read it and want to enjoy the suspense while you read, look away now.

The story is set in a high flying cancer cell biology lab in Boston. Postdocs are working night and day to try and land a paper in Nature and to become an independent PI. Chloe manages it, while Karen is struggling, despite her best efforts. Karen accidentally uncovers that Chloe may have cut some corners to get her paper into Nature and this sets off a cascade of events, leading to the retraction of the paper. It’s a fascinating tale, well-written and completely absorbing. I recommend it for anyone working in science. You will smile at the references to conference coffee, failed scientists and more.

The plotline is highly reminiscent of Intuition by Allegra Goodman, even down to the tumours growing in the mice. Both stories echo the real-life events of Thereza Imanishi-Kari which are detailed in the overlong but comprehensive The Baltimore Case by Daniel J. Kevles. Rørth’s retelling of the science world is more convincing that Goodman’s, due in part to her 25 years as a scientist. Nonetheless, Intuition is a great book that I’d also recommend in this genre.

Raw Data is thought-provoking. You can ponder the role of Tom, the PI who has cultivated a certain atmosphere in the lab. What about the pressure to publish? How about the peer reviewers who dangle the carrot of “get this result and you can have a Nature paper” in front of Chloe? It’s a toxic mix and it’s happening in labs all over the world. A terrifying thought.

On the role of Tom: one thing that is slightly underexplored is the fact that Tom tells Chloe that there is a competing group that could ‘scoop’ her while she is rushing to finish her paper. It isn’t clear whether this group actually exists and if this was a tactic to gee her along. Either way it is another bit of pressure which goes on to create the misconduct.

Not so long ago a high profile research institute in the UK announced that it was recruiting PIs by looking for the “best scientific athlete”. I read last week that so far from the London 2012 Olympics, 37 track-and-field sportspeople have had their results disqualified by the IAAF for doping. The parallels are interesting. Science, like sport, is run with winner-takes-all rules and the high stakes and pressure that go along with it. The incentives are dangerous and I wonder what we are creating with this atmosphere. Certainly, as PIs we have a real responsibility, just as coaches do in sport, to ensure our trainees make the right choices in their career.

I’ve seen nothing but recommendations for this book so far and mine is another one.

Here’s Matthew Freeman saying that it would be required reading for everyone in his lab:

My Blank Pages is a track by Velvet Crush. This is an occasional series of book reviews.

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