TIR doesn’t produce Christmas plays. But if we did, this would be our offering for 2019: a satirical scientific retelling of “Hansel & Gretel”
Hansel & Gretel are young PhD students in a university department. Though relatively poor, they are happy and fulfilled, and their supervisor, a young group leader, is kind-hearted and trains them well.
Alas, a funding famine settles over the land, following the success of right-wing nationalist politics and some disastrous anti-science decisions within government. With purse strings tightening, grant success rates drop to 10%, and the kindly supervisor is one of many whose work is now judged “out of remit” and “not close enough to the clinic”.
Morale is low and there are rumours that even some of the technicians and staff scientists in the department may have to be laid off. Seeing the helpless predicament of the junior group, a staff scientist in the department takes young Hansel and Gretel away into the wilderness and tells them they must fend for themselves.
Hansel grabs a box of tips and drops them behind him as they head off, leaving a trail into the forest. Unfortunately, his plan to create a marked route back home is thwarted by well-meaning environmental activists, who gather up all the tips as part of their campaign against microplastics. Hansel and Gretel are lost.
After wandering around in the wilderness, Hansel and Gretel come across a lavishly-funded research institute in the middle of nowhere. It’s made from cakes, sweets, chocolate and candy, is stuffed with every core facility a PhD student could hope for, and is fully automated. Only the institute director is present. She invites them inside with promises of first authorships and is friendly. Hansel and Gretel rejoice at their good fortune.
Once inside, she locks Hansel and Gretel in the lab and tells them they can’t come out until they produce a “high impact” paper. She doesn’t let either of them out, makes them write grant proposals in her name, and feeds them with sweets and crisps from the many vending machines inside the institute. Both children become fat and unwell, pasty from lack of exposure to sunlight, and tormented by nightmares about their projects.
Eventually, the witch decides that Hansel and Gretel have outlived their usefulness, and decides to eat them, as she has all her previous PhD students. She heats up the oven and invites Gretel to step inside to see if it’s warm enough for baking. Gretel senses the trick and instead says that she can see the witch’s NIH grant paperwork on the oven shelf. Horrified at the possibility of losing the money, the witch climbs inside to retrieve the precious pages. Gretel closes the door and the witch is incinerated in the flames of her own greed and selfishness.
While exploring the house, amidst the stacks of unpublished papers from previous PhD students, Hansel and Gretel find pots of gold containing the grant funds obtained in their name by the witch. They take the grant money with them and journey back to their old department, where they are reunited with their former supervisor. Rejoicing, the trio then relocate to a country with a more pro-science agenda and go on to have happy and rewarding careers.
A merry Christmas to all our readers!