Thursday, June 08, 2006

A novel approach to science asks if a researcher was cooking the books


The new novel by Massachusetts-based author Allegra Goodman is nothing to sneeze at. It's a carefully crafted exploration of the social side of science with a central question at its core: Did researcher Cliff Bannaker alter his notes to make it seem that a virus variant he developed, R-7, dramatically shrank tumors in mice?

A former love interest, and lab-co-worker, Robin Decker, is fed up with Cliff receiving all the limelight. She begins to suspect something is amiss and makes her suspicions public. Cliff, furious, wants to deck her for robin him of his glory. Instead, with both parties lawyered up, and Cliff's notes at issue, there is no summary judgment for the reader but instead some intriguing questions about how science works and whether Robin's intuition is based on evidence or is just a matter of a pinion.

Though "Intuition" ($25 in hardcover from The Dial Press) eschews the silly wordplay that burdens this review (Allegra is great for all that eschewing, by the way), her serious novel does not take itself too seriously. Some of its material suggests the author having a great time at the top of her game. When two characters talk about the director of the Office for Research Integrity at NIH, Alan Hackett, he is called an "ambulance-chaser" and a "hack." Names are significant in Goodman's novels.

It is 1985. Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn are co-directors of a lab at the prestigious Philpott Institute near Harvard, and they are both desperate for a "win" in order to keep the grant money flowing. Sandy is a doctor with a consummate bedside manner, self-assured, "a force of nature." Marion is a careful and compassionate scientist, a detail person, suspicious of Cliff's too-good-to-be-true results. Yet now Marion "had been infected by Sandy's hype. ... She had not entirely forgotten the pursuit of truth, but she had begun, like Sandy, to think that she possessed it."

Sandy's youngest daughter is memorizing some of the work of John Donne, who wrote "about how complex and how vast man is. ... And how small and susceptible at the same time." "Susceptible to what?" her father asks. "To sin" is Kate's reply. Donne, of course, is famous for his own wordplay: "When thou hast Donne" (when God has Donne's heart) "thou has not Donne" (there are more sins yet to enumerate).

Goodman evokes life among the postdocs at the lab, toiling away, writing up results, running into dead ends. Until now. After the New York Times runs an article on R-7, People magazine shows up but focuses its attention on Cliff's fellow postdoc (and a partner in the research on R-7), Xiang Feng. Cliff becomes jealous of Feng's media attention. But then they publish an article in the scientific journal Nature and Cliff's reputation seems unassailable.

Then it all goes wrong. Robin files a formal complaint with the NIH. Other labs, ones at Cornell and elsewhere, are unable to duplicate Cliff's results. Maybe their version of R-7 has been contaminated. Maybe Robin is creating a flap to get back at Cliff. Maybe Cliff has cooked the books.

In the end the story is not so much about who did what (there is a satisfying ambiguity here) but what Cliff might be capable of doing. In science, as in any human endeavor, there is enough sin to go around. People who live in Glass houses shouldn't throw lab mice.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

No comments: