Monthly Archives: July 2010

Blogs a science communication student might like

A colleague asked me for a list of blogs that next year’s science communication MSc students might like to read. I figured the only way to share this information was in a blogpost.

Warning: there is no such thing as a reading list of science blogs, you need to explore for yourself. These are just starting points.

Twitter is a good way of engaging with the science blogosphere. My “awesome science” list of people who write and/ or link to great science writing on the web should be a useful starting point. Twitter is also brilliant for discussing/ eavesdropping on debates about science in the media and policy, so I can recommend people on my science policy and science communication lists too. Please note, many of these accounts will tweet about other things too.

These links are really just the tip of the iceberg. Or, a small section of a big chunk of ice, as I’m not sure something iceberg-shaped is the appropriate metaphor. I should also add that I don’t agree with everything these people blog/ tweet about. Not even close. They do, however, tend to write about topics a science communication student might be interested in. At the very least, they’ll point you towards some new ideas and make you think.

Click on a few links here and see who they link to. See what entertains, educates or enrages you. Go, have a play.

Thinking outside the SpaceDino

Grrr

This Dinosaur resides in Crystal Palace, not outer space

This extends my piece on Comment is Free.

Science minister David Willetts recently gave a speech to the Royal Institution. He was asked a question about how he would work effectively with schools and young people (another minister’s brief). He started off well before putting his foot in his mouth with this little piece of laziness: “The two best ways of getting young people into science are space and dinosaurs”.

It was a flippant point, but indicative of a flippancy which is somehow ok when it comes to “kids stuff” (and pisses me off). It could have been worse. Willetts could have put the space-dinos point the way he did in Portsmoth the previous month: “All the evidence suggest if you’re going to get young people into those subjects they are the two most powerful things” (source: local newspaper report).

All the evidence? Really? Er, no. I checked. What “evidence” does exist is deeply flawed and/ or contradicts a love of space-dinos (for very brief discussion see the comment is free piece). It’s a seriously under-researched area. There should be a lot more work in this area, and it should be a lot better. Interestingly, many of the CiF comments reflected a tendency in educational discourse to hold personal experience above research that aims to consider a broader range of people. For example: “Dinos and space worked for me”. I’m sure they did, and I’m not seeking to devalue that personal experience in any way, but the world is bigger.

I should underline that I wrote this piece because the Guardian asked to respond to recent HESA data, and a perceived problem of attracting women in science. This is a knotty question, there are oodles of issues involved (as Sheril Kirshenbaum’s recent blogpost reflects on). I wanted to stress that, in working through all these issues, we have to be careful of making broad statements about gender, age or science.

For example, Susan Greenfield says physics has a problem recruiting girls because girls “want to know about relationships” (yes, in that interview). Maybe she has a point, she’s not the only one to say this (some history of debates around this documented in this reader). But “girls” are rather a large set of people to pin down. Educational researcher Heather Mendick found that apparently “hardness” of A-level maths could be part of the (many) appeals of the subject for girls as well as boys. Of course, Mendick’s study is of girls who have chosen to study maths, not the ones who had been put off. But we can’t ignore those already-interested either. That’s really my point: if you’re worried about inspiring the next generation of scientists, boys or girls, you need to listen to young people, in all their diversity. You can’t just rely on your own experience, you have to let yourself be surprised by your audience.

Further, to pick up on the “generational issues”: as I say in the CiF piece, a lot of children’s media (be it books, tv, museums, school exams) can seem a generation or two behind. There is a long history of analysis of spotting this in literary/ media studies. Jacqueline Rose wrote the book on it. Her study of Peter Pan is subtitled “the impossibility of children’s literature”, arguing children’s literature is produced and controlled by adults, so it reflects an adult’s idea of the child (it’s not “children’s” at all, it belongs to the grownups). Personally, I much prefer David Buckingham’s extension of Rose’s idea. He applies the idea of “impossibility” to Timmy Mallett and argues that kids tv presenters who try to appear “down with the kids” as largely acting out a role of what they think children are and will like; a form of “generational drag”. There’s always a bit of “dressing up” involved.

So, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that projects like I’m a Scientist or SciCast are somehow simply bottom up, or (more ridiculous) a clean articulation of what children are “naturally” interested in. It’s worth noting quite how connected to the school curriculum the SciCast films are (maybe that’s a good thing though, a sign that aspects of the school science system are working, at least in places). Equally, we shouldn’t write off these projects because of adult involvement either. Education is largely a matter of passing on ideas from one generation to another, but SciCast and I’m a Scientist involve young people as active participants in this, letting young people express their own interests. That’s why I mentioned them on CiF. The question banks in I’m a Scientist and SciCast’s films provide some rough idea of what aspects of science today’s young people find exciting. In the absence of much more decent work in the field, they are one place to at least get some clue of what inspires young people.

Science on teh internets: an interview with Drs Mendel & Riesch

Having run a series of short interviews with UK-based science bloggers, I’ve also talked to a couple of colleagues who are developing research on the ‘bad science’ blogging community.


Jon Mendel is a geographer at Dundee with a background in studying networks, virtual war and security. Interested in how new media are functioning or not functioning in the case of science blogs and in the role and efficacy of networked forms here.

Hauke Riesch researches public understanding/engagement/involvement/awareness/whatever of science and risk at Cambridge, having previously written a PhD on philosophy in popular science books. Among other things. Next to everything social to do with risk and new technologies, he is interested in how scientists think about science, how they communicate it, and how they think about communicating it.

Firstly, can you give us some idea of the methodology you applied to your study?

We drew on our participation in and observation of the development of this community, from its establishment through to some of the interesting activism episodes in which the community participated.

We used an e-mail qualitative survey: we emailed a list of questions to established members of the community on their blogging activities and their thoughts about science blogging in general and this community in particular.

The paper you presented at the Science and Public conference started by noting there is a lot of hope surrounding science blogging – what do you think those hopes are?

Blogging in general has attracted a lot of hope about how it can democratise the public sphere: anyone can in principle get themselves and their ideas heard and the small army of potential fact-checkers and arguers can shed light on issues where we would previously have relied on a small and overworked group of professional journalists. However there may be barriers inherent within the very concept of blogging that prevent this – there is just so much out there that important contributions can easily be drowned out. These goals are quite neatly summarised and evaluated by Sunstein who concludes that they have not been realised at least to the extent that had been hoped.

In the context of blogging about science, similar hopes are often expressed: some argue that blogging can give individual scientists a voice for their views and opinions and therefore enable them to contribute directly to the national conversations about science and science policy. Related to that, science blogging is often seen as a way for scientists to free themselves from demands of publishers or journalists and others who usually control the flow of information between science and public, so that they can communicate their science directly to the public and allow the public to engage more easily with them. These ideas are also often linked to the free-access movement: Scientists are encouraged to blog directly about their science because ultimately the public pays for it and has a right to know about what science finds. Science blogging does give more people an outlet to write about science – allowing lots of good material to be placed online, though also lots which is less good.

The science bloggers with whom we have discussed our research are also interested in science blogging as offering opportunities for activism, engagement and the development of communities. Bloggers are seeking to use science blogging to engage with and challenge the main-stream media and various other actors.

What do you think are the limitations of these hopes?

As has been noted by some of the bloggers in this community, blogs have relatively small audiences compared to many mainstream media outlets. Blogs can also be left communicating with a relatively narrow audience, such as those already highly interested in science (although whether this is a problem is debatable: Racing Post isn’t seen as a failure because of its relatively narrow audience). As things stand, we do not see convincing evidence that science blogs offer a replacement for the mainstream media – although they can be a useful supplement, partner and challenge to it (and some of the bloggers in this community would challenge the distinction between blogs and the mainstream media). Talk of the ‘dead tree press’ etc. seems, in this context, highly premature.

The efficacy of science blogs’ activism is also unclear. Bloggers have been involved in some notable successes – for example, the Singh-BCA libel case – and have been able to organise effectively in order to offer strong challenges to much better-resourced opponents. On the other hand, some have questioned whether initiatives such as #scivote have been effective (and there are interesting links here between ‘science activism’ and people’s broader political goals – some people are less than happy about having the Conservatives in government). We tried to intervene ourselves with regards to aspects of BIS’s Science: So What? So Everything initiative (see e.g. coverage in Times Higher and a piece on the Times’ science blog) but we now have FOIA responses which show how little impact academics and bloggers had with regards to some problematic aspects of the campaign. We are not sure what solutions there might be here.

We should emphasise that there is a fairly high degree of self-reflection in the community we studied and that bloggers are often quite critical themselves about the limitations of certain practices. We would want to avoid judging the successes/failures of this community in relation to overly-utopian hopes largely generated from outside of the community: there have been some notable achievements, although a small community of science bloggers seems unlikely to turn the science media into a ‘dead tree press’ in the immediate future.

Can you tell us a bit about who the sorts of people who blog about science are, or at least what the backgrounds and motivations of the bloggers you studied are?

We lack the knowledge to answer about people who blog about science generally: this is a large area that we haven’t studied in enough depth, and many prominent bloggers are also anonymous. There is generally something of a lack of research on science blogs.

The community we studied has established norms on writing about science which emphasise accuracy, reliance on evidence and ‘letting the facts speak for themselves’. In addition, there is a focus on getting things done: science blogging within the community is not just about writing, but also about campaigning on related causes – this activist element may be a distinguishing feature of this community of science bloggers. There is also an interesting approach to ideas of authority here: ideas of individual authority are largely rejected, but writing instead takes on a
kind of authority through being embedded in a network of blogs, comments, links and research.

Sneaky extra question I asked all the bloggers I interviewed: do you have a favourite blog? If so, what is it? (doesn’t have to be a science one).

Mindhacks is excellent for its discussion of a broad range of mind/brain/society-related issues, while Jack of Kent’s blog has been a very interesting piece of activism and is an excellent explanation of complex legal issues for laypersons. David Campbell’s blog has some good, detailed discussion of issues around politics, geography and multimedia (including some excellent essays on new media/social media). It has also been great to see the development of the ‘bad science’ blogging community and of the blogs associated with it.

UK science blogger interview: Imran Khan

Imran Khan is the Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), the UK’s leading advocate for science and engineering policy. CaSE are supported by members from academia, industry, learned societies, and charities.

Imran himself comes from a background of science communication and policy, having written for the Guardian, New Scientist and World Health Organisation, produced for the BBC and the BMJ, and researched in the House of Commons. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and Imperial College.

As part of its work, CaSE runs The Science Vote blog. It was originally called CaSE Notes, but was renamed and came to prominence during the 2010 General Election, when it had over 10,000 individual readers.

Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

The blog has a deliberately niche audience and content, focusing solely on science and engineering policy; whether that be funding, education, the role of Government and Parliament, or related issues. As well as CaSE staff, guest bloggers include science policy professionals, politicians, and working scientists and engineers.

The Science Vote exists to help us achieve our aims of being a voice for the science and engineering community, so our intended audience is fairly specific. The issues we cover are fairly geeky; the intricacies of science funding, speculation on which politicians are interested in the importance of science and engineering, and reviews of science policy events, for instance. We also tend to go into a lot of detail in terms of what we write.

That means that you often not only have to care about the issues we write on, but also be fairly au fait with the background in order to engage with the content. We’re quite happy with that model, particularly as it lets us bring in extremely well-informed guest bloggers who don’t necessarily have journalistic tendencies.

The S Word blog at NewScientist.com does a brilliant job of exposing the big issues in science policy to a wider scientific audience, and obviously I contribute to that when I can. In comparison, The Science Vote is designed to be a resource for the science policy community and a tool for CaSE, rather than a clarion call.

Do you think there is an increasing appetite for coverage of policy issues in the science blogosphere?

Our readership definitely shot up during the election. Since then, it’s dropped off, but is still far higher than anything we had before.

I think all the activity – everything from real-world science hustings to #scivote tweets – got people to twig that that you can’t take science and engineering out of politics, or vice versa. If you do, we’ll just get sidelined.

So now you have people who were already active in the science blogosphere extending their interest to science policy, because they’re passionate about science and therefore recognise the importance of decent science policy.

And it’s encouraging that activity levels now are fairly high. Before the election you had a fairly characterful set of Science spokesmen for the three big parties, and you also had the looming election, so science policy was bound to get a lot of attention.

Whereas now it looks like the Lib Dems won’t have a formal science spokesman, and Labour don’t have theirs yet. But in autumn we’ll learn what the science budget will look like, as well as who Willetts’ Labour shadow will be, so I’d imagine you’ll see even more of an appetite later in the year.

Are there people or institutions in science policy you’d like to see start a blog? (and/ or topics you think should be covered more?)

I think it’d be very interesting to see a blog which takes a close look at the use and misuse of science in politics. Some debate in Parliament is excellent. But some of it is frighteningly bad, particularly when it betrays a lack of some very basic understanding of the nature of evidence. But I think you’d need to be fairly closely linked to Parliament to be able to keep an eye on what’s going on there.

One of the subjects which our blog tries to raise the profile of is diversity in STEM. It’s an appalling statistic that only one in ten engineering graduates are women, and we have similar problems with socio-economic and ethnic diversity. I think most of us would agree that there’s a ‘universality’ about science that means it can bridge divides, but in many respects we’re failing to. Though I’m not sure a dedicated ‘diversity blog’ is what I’m arguing for; diversity in STEM shouldn’t be a balkanised issue, but one which you can weave into different aspects of science policy.

Finally, back to that #scivote hashtag. In terms of political campaigning around science, do you think microblogging (i.e. twitter) is more important than standard blogging, or that they play different/ supporting roles?

There’s always a danger when you do anything via twitter that you think “Great, that’s ticked off then”, forgetting you’re only dealing with a subset of the community. And although tweeting is useful in getting the word out and discussion, you can’t really do policy analysis and argument in 140 characters. So you do need the standard blogging to underpin it.

Sneaky extra question: can you tell us your favourite blog(s)?

My favourite blogs are badscience, the S word, SciDevNet, engadget, mindhacks, kottke.org, cynical-c, and strange maps. Plus a special mention for the Little Atoms podcast, even though it’s not a blog.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

See also my list of (UK) science policy blogs on posterous.

UK science blogger interview: Mun Keat Looi

Mun-Keat Looi is a Science Writer at the Wellcome Trust and one of the editors of the Trust’s blog. The Wellcome Trust blog aims to tell some of the many stories about the wide variety of people, projects and events that the Trust funds. Everything and everybody from new PhD students to senior scientists, genetics to the impact of the environment on health, science, art, history, museums plays and films.

Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

Audience for us is a difficult one because we have so many! Our core audience is the people we fund (or are interested in obtaining funding from us), but even that can include artists, writers and filmmakers as well as scientists of different disciplines. Part of what we want to do is introduce people to the other things we fund, outside of their own fields, be it neuroscientists to genetics or sculptors to biochemistry. As a science writer I hope I write in a way that is interesting and accessible to any general reader, and this is something we try to reflect in the blog. Anybody from any background could be reading our posts, so we try not to assume any prior knowledge and just try to convey why we think something is interesting.

Do you have a favourite blogpost ? (as in one you’ve really enjoyed writing)

I have a few favourites — it’s hard to pick one as we have so many different kinds of posts. Some of them are more like feature articles, talking about things that just wouldn’t fit anywhere else in our communications output. For example, I used ‘overmatter’ from a feature I wrote about synthetic biology to post about what it is like for students to be in the iGEM competition at MIT. That’s proved reasonably popular, and I’d like to think it’s been of use to people thinking about taking part in the competition.

On the more conventional side, I like the chance to cover some of the brilliant, if less newsworthy, papers from scientists that the Trust funds (those that aren’t deemed ‘worthy’ enough for a press release or full news story). Some of the smaller studies we fund overseas, for example, or genetics studies that aren’t headline-making. It’s also nice to cover a paper in more depth than in the media — I wrote one post about cognitive enhancing drugs that the researcher seemed pleased with. She felt the media coverage had distorted her findings and was relieved to have the chance to set the record straight.

Maybe my favourite post is nothing to do with science though. I like being more personal in blogging than in news or feature writing and I’ve written a few like this for the Wellcome Collection blog. Specifically a few from a China Symposium we ran, which I attended with my Dad and which very much influenced how I reported it afterwards! Blogging’s allowed me to cover things and talk to people I wouldn’t normally have had a chance to, which is
one of the reasons I value having the blogs as an outlet.

How do you feel blogging for an institution differs from independent or journalistic blogging?

Obviously you have to be a bit more careful about what you say – you’re speaking on behalf of an organisation rather than yourself. Having said that, we have deliberately made the Trust blog a community one with ‘real’ people behind the posts rather than the anonymous news stories we have on our corporate site (and to some extent Twitter/Facebook). We wanted to put more of a personal face to the Trust as opposed to this big amorphous organisation (or hiding behind pictures of dear old Sir Henry Wellcome…).

In terms of what we do, our approach doesn’t differ too much from the way a journalist or blogger might approach a story. All of the writers at the Trust have the same objective: to seek out interesting stories and report as objectively as possible (while being transparent about who we work for).

Where the affiliation pays off is, of course, access to many events, meetings, information and people that others may not have. By virtue of being at the Wellcome Trust there’s tons of stuff going on that we have access to and could share with others interested in the same things.

Obviously we want to raise awareness of what the Trust does, but we’re not the marketing team or the press office (though they do occasionally contribute). I think the way to raise awareness is to let the content (i.e. the people and projects we fund) speak for itself — find interesting people and interesting stories and don’t bang on about yourself all the time. We’re lucky in that we’ve got a reasonable amount of license to say what we want on what we find interesting, so long as we stay sensible and relevant to the Trust’s interests.

Do you feel you differ from blogs from corporate a institution? (or sponsored blogs for that matter?)

I’ve pondered a lot on how the blogging we do is similar or different to other ‘corporate’ blogs and other charities’ blogs like CRUK, who have a more defined audience. The recent ScienceBlogs Pepsigate scandal raised a lot of questions. As many have said, it may have been different if PepsiCo were upfront about it being marketing from the start, or started a blog genuinely exploring the food science behind their products from a more independent perspective. Institution blogging is an interesting area and I hope to hear more people’s thoughts on this at the event.

Finally, care to share your favourite blogs?

Not Exactly Rocket Science, Genetic Future, Cancer Research UK Science Blog, Times Science Blog (before the paywall), Wellcome Library Blog, Alice Bell (no, really*)

As for a non-science blog, it’s Kirainet, which is one of several places I go to for amusing/ interesting/ geeky/ weirdo Japanese stuff. A good example of a blog which is pretty straightforward in terms of writing, but the content is so interesting it pretty much speaks for itself. I’d mention others, but am slightly afraid of giving away how much of a dork I really am….

* I paid him to say this.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

UK science blogger interview: Daniel MacArthur

After completing his PhD in 2008 in Australia, Daniel moved to the UK to take up a position at the Sanger Institute, the largest genomics research institute in the country. His day job revolves around the analysis of DNA sequence data from projects like the 1000 Genomes Project, and figuring out ways of using these torrents of data to help inform studies of human disease. His blog Genetic Future focuses on the personal genomics industry: companies offering to sell you information about your own genome, for purposes ranging from learning about your ancestors to predicting your risk of serious diseases.

First question: Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

This is something that has really evolved over time as I started to get to know my readers. Initially I had a very vague idea of potential readers – basically anyone interested in genetics, I suppose – but I found it very hard to write about the things I was interested in without implicitly requiring some kind of background knowledge from the reader. I also started to accumulate a great group of regular commenters with expertise in the field, a combination of self-educated genetic hobbyists and people with more formal training, and that’s the level that I ended up pitching most of my posts.

I’m never sure if I’ve found the right balance, but it’s certainly made it easier for me to write about the scientific and commercial aspects of genomics to not have to build in a huge amount of introductory material for every post.

Is there anything about your composition style, or choice of subject matter which you feel has changed over time? (as you have got to know your readers, or for other reasons).

Yes, absolutely. When I started the blog I initially focused on genetics more broadly, with an emphasis on the scientific issues. As time has gone on I’ve focused more and more on the commercial side of things, spending a lot of time discussing companies involved in direct-to-consumer genetic testing and DNA sequencing. To some extent this shift has been reader-driven, but mostly it’s just a reflection of how my own interests have changed over the last couple of years.

Changing track a bit. You’ve written about some of the difficulties of scientists (live) blogging conferences. Do you feel there is a role for blogging in opening up business as well as science? Equally, do you feel especially constrained ever as a science blogger who focuses on commercial issues?

There’s definitely a role for scientifically-literate bloggers in opening up the commercial world to public scrutiny. One scathing post from a blogger laying out the deficiencies of a company’s genetic test can end up dominating Google search hits for that company’s name, which then means potential consumers doing even the most superficial web research before buying can quickly get access to informed criticism. That’s incredibly important in a field as complex as genetic testing, where most consumers aren’t really in a position to make a fully informed decision – having independent, expert reviews out there on the internet can make it a lot easier for people to make the right choice.

That said, with power comes consequences. It’s easy to forget that what you say as a blogger can have a major impact on the companies you write about: one bad review of a new sequencing technology could sometimes be enough to dissuade a key investor from buying in, for example. When that sort of money is at stake the consequences of mis-reporting are pretty serious, so I’m now always quite careful to make sure what I say about a company is carefully-phrased and well-justified. I don’t always get that right when I’m writing in a hurry or if I’m particularly outraged by a dodgy product, but I try.

Can you imagine more corporate-based science blogging, in similar ways science charities like Cancer Research UK or the Wellcome Trust blog? (esp. the former, as their news blog works to act against google results of “bad” health news messages they would like to combat?)

There are already some quality corporate science blogs out there – a particularly good example in my field is The Spittoon, run by direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. However, it’s hard for corporate blogs to stay on-message without either being boring or looking like PR shills for their company. I’d definitely like to see more companies out there blogging, but if they do so they’re going to have to learn to give their bloggers a reasonably long leash and be prepared to deal openly with controversy in the comments section. It’s tough to get the balance right, but companies that do it well can get a lot of respect (and business) as a result; unfortunately, companies that get it wrong (as Pepsico did this week) can find themselves in a world of pain!

Finally, can you tell us your favourite blog? (it doesn’t have to be a science blog)

I’m a nerd, so all of my favourite blogs are science blogs! It’s very tough to pick a single winner, so I’ll name three instead: for general science I’d have to say Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science, for my field of research I think John Hawks’ excellent palaeoanthropology blog, and for personal genomics I have only good things to say about the Genomics Law Report.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

UK science blogger interview: Jennifer Rohn

Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London. In her spare time, she is also a novelist, freelance science writer and communicator, broadcaster, sci-lit-art pundit and editor of the science-culture webzine LabLit.com. She has blogged at Mind The Gap on Nature Network since 2007. Jenny leaves reporting of the facts and figures of scientific research in the capable hands of her science blogger colleagues. Instead, she prefers to focus on issues of the scientific profession, using her blog to reveal what her day-to-day life in the lab is like – the good, the bad and the ugly.

So, starter question, do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

Because I am writing about my life as a scientist, I try to pitch it so that anyone can understand it. I am sure that a large portion of my audience currently consists of fellow scientists, given the Nature Network environment, but I do hope that as my blog becomes more well known, I will reach beyond that inner circle. On the other hand, it almost doesn’t matter if anyone is listening; I have kept a paper diary since I was a child, and for me blogging is an extension of that. Although I try to write in a way that will please other people, I ultimately do it because I love – and even need – to write for myself.

Can you remember what first inspired you to make the move from personal “paper diary” to blog?

I was actually a very late adopter of the whole Web 2.0 thing. I didn’t really consider it until I was approached by Nature Network and asked if I would blog for them. At first, being pretty time-poor, I was against the idea of yet more writing commitments. But the more I thought about it, the more attractive the idea seemed. I do a lot of freelance writing, and one of the most frustrating things about it is, after taking great care to perfect exactly what you want to say, having to see your writing slashed and rearranged by editors and sub-editors, some of whom don’t really share your sense of craft or style. It suddenly dawned on me that having a blog, I could be the master of my own literary domain. It was a great feeling of freedom!

You mentioned the “inner circle” of Nature Network. (a) What do you feel are the advantages of that community of readers/ other bloggers? (b) Do you have any ideas/ plans for ways other audiences might come to your blog?

I think the only way that the social internet is made bearable is by its propensity to consolidate into small communities; much like a real flesh-and-blood conference, beyond a critical mass of participants it all gets unwieldy and impersonal. It doesn’t matter to me how many readers read my blog — the more the merrier — but when it comes to direct interactions, I would be much happier interacting with a close-knit group of a few dozen regular commenters rather than hundreds. The more comments a blog attracts, the higher it seems the chances of getting nasty. But if you have come to know your community, people behave much more like they would face-to-face: that is, with the normal codes of courtesy. Also, I like to respond to all comments personally, and if there were too many people it would be impossible.

I would like my blog to be more widely read, though. Recently there have been a few blogs that have touched a nerve and spread via Twitter — my organization of “Spoof Simon Jenkins Monday“, for example — and this has really increased traffic my way, exposing my blog to people who wouldn’t normally come across it. So Twitter has become an excellent way to amplify any important messages my blog may be sending out.

Do you think your experience as a blogger has had an impact on your approach to other writing?

Blogging has definitely honed my style. I’ve written a lot of fiction, and I’ve written a lot of science news, and blogging is somewhere in the middle: like news reporting, you need to capture your audience quickly and to be very brief (I really think a good blog post shouldn’t be longer than 300-400 words), but like fiction, you want to express something elusive and emotional in the most original way you can. Blogging has helped me to experiment more with humor, which I find has helped with certain scenes I’ve been working on in my third novel. Above all, blogging has really exercised the basic craft: I can now knock off a fairly polished blog post in under fifteen minutes, and I find that writing everything else has also sped up accordingly. It’s almost as if that part of my brain is just permanently primed and ready for action.

Finally, can you tell us your favourite blog?

My favorite blog is Confessions of a (former) lab rat, because it’s got a righteous anger and rebellious edge that I wish I could muster. I’m always a little afraid of causing offence, but Confessions never shies away from being controversial or — when the need arises — even a bit rude.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

Interviews with science bloggers

On the run up to the science blogging event I’m chairing on Thursday, I thought I’d do a series of short interviews with four UK science bloggers who, in addition to our panel, reflect some key areas in the UK science blogosphere.

I’ve started off with the same question to all of them: do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog? Subsequent questions then flow from that answer and/ or the specific type of blogging they do. I’ve also asked each of them to share their favourite blogs.

I’ll make their names into links when the interviews go live:

  • Jennifer Rohn, who keeps a “life in the lab” blog on Nature Network.
  • Daniel MacArthur, who blogs about the genetic testing industry on ScienceBlogs.
  • Mun Keat Looi, who writes on an institutional blog for the Wellcome Trust.
  • Imran Khan, who blogs about UK science policy as Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

Additionally, I asked social scientists Hauke Riesch and Jon Mendel to tell me a bit about their research into the science blogging community.

If you’re interesting in this sort of thing, I can also recommend this set of mini-interviews with psychology bloggers from British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. Also, a couple of recent science-related profiles from Normblog: Gimpy and Jack of Kent.

We released a few more tickets for the blogging event, so if you thought we’d sold out, there is still a chance to sign up.

The evidence "badger"

I’ve just realised that people will be coming here from my profile on Normblog. So here’s a quick re-post from Flickr which at least includes a picture of a toy.

Evidence Badger

Meet the evidence badger. Ok, it’s a cow.

This is a bit of an in-joke, which I apologise for. But explaining lets me raise a serious point. Badgers are a bit of a knotty issue for science/ agricultural policy. It’s just going to get bigger with the new coalition government. I wanted to present the new Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Imran Khan, with a toy Badger as a joke-warning of the fuss that is to come. Sadly, the Early Learning Center on High Street Kensington had run out. So had the one in Hammersmith, and the King’s Road branch was shut (cue jokes about culls of West London). So, I presented him with a cow instead.

In some respects a cow is more fitting than a badger, anyway. Badgers are only an issue because of bovine TB. Moreover, the shadow of “mad cow disease” still influences a lot of UK science policy. And there is more. As Imran himself pointed out, if we wanted to, we could trace MMR vaccinations back to cowpox. And then there’s all the methane cows burp out, not to mention the GM soya so many are fed on, and foot and mouth… Clearly, cows are running rampant through UK science policy. You have been warned. The broader point though is that the presentation of evidence isn’t necessarily the end of a science policy discussion.

Edited to add (6pm): Listening to Willetts’ speech at the Royal Institution this morning, this final point is something I think we should bare in mind. Willetts said many things, one being:

as society becomes more diverse and cultural traditions increasingly fractured, I see the scientific way of thinking – empiricism – becoming more and more important for binding us together.

In some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with science, basking in the warm glow of Baconian inductivism. Bless. It’d be all very neat if we could just silence questions and solve our problems with bits of incontrovertible evidence. But science just doesn’t work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate.

Please note, this isn’t a criticism of “the scientific way of thinking”, I just define it less narrowly than Willetts. Personally I think the capacity for (even encouragement of) debate is one of the good things about science. Long live the evidence badger, in all its troubled glory.

Added 11th Aug: looking back on the last couple of weeks, we’re still obsessed.

“Levels” of engagement

On Tuesday, I ran a couple of workshops at an event called “the engaging researcher”. This is a summary of what I said.

I was initially asked to talk about “levels of engagement”. I was quick to nip that title in the bud because I don’t think levels are productive way of thinking about science communication. You often see people classifying research communication as level 1, a “top-down” talk, level 2, a discussion, and level 3, a form of “upstream” engagement where publics get to help definite the perimeters for the debate as well as take part in the debate itself. This is limiting in all sorts of ways, but I especially worry that it implies some sort of hierarchy of engagement work, a sense of linear order even. I’ve actually heard of people worrying that as junior researchers they couldn’t be expected to manage a higher level. I find this depressing.

I can see why people apply these sorts of models. They see projects that don’t quite “get” the aims of the public engagement movement, and want to challenge science communication to be better. I’d agree there is a lot of, frankly, rubbish working under the rhetoric of “engagement”, and it’s worth calling bad work to account. I’m also a big fan of the idea of upstream engagement. However, I don’t think implying a hierarchy of science communication is constructive. We’re much better off with a qualitative approach: one that reflects on the specific people, knowledges, resources and, most of all, political agendas involved in a specific project.

To give a bit of context to this, it’s worth repeating a potted history of UK science communication I give my students. As I tell them in class, read this with caution. It’s the story UK science communication professionals tell themselves, and largely make-believe.

Once upon a time, around the end of the 20th century, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. They cited the popularity of the New Age movement, spiritualism, creationism, the X-files, crystal healing and the animal liberation front as The Enemy, and set up camp against them. They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, founded something called the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) movement, lately coalescing around a (1985) report for the Royal Society by Walter Bodmer. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists started to complain that PUS was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant. They set up their own “critical PUS” camp in opposition to what they dubbed PUS’ “deficit model” (i.e. assuming the public are deficit in science). Various debates, surveys of public knowledge/ attitudes, initiatives, jargon and outright spats followed. Eventually, the sociologists stamped their feet so loudly everyone finally listened to reason, and we now all officially reject all forms of PUS, preferring a more interactive model, generally known as “engagement” or “dialogue”.

It’s worth knowing this as the history people work from, and there is an element of truth in it, but do take it with a big bag of salt. Arguably, much post-PUS science communication may go under nomenclature of engagement, participation or dialogue but too often such phraseology is a mirage, hiding a very traditional deficit model approach underneath. There has been some change: it would be ahistorical to say it’s all the same as it was in the 1950s. Indeed, the norm of public engagement is so embedded in British science that recent research from the LSE quoted Walter Bodmer himself advocating a PEST-ish point of view. Still, we’ve haven’t all arrived at some great enlightened age of “engagement”. Let’s not kid ourselves.

Rather than imagine a linear progression from PUS to PEST, I think it’s better to think of a set of gradually developing, overlapping ideas and tensions when it comes to relationships between academic research and the public. I think this video by some of my students (acting out what it’s like to be a scientist in 1950s, 1970s, 1990s and today) shows a disruption to this telling of the history very neatly. It’s about 7 minutes. Watch it.

During the workshop, we looked at a handful of science communication projects and reflected briefly on the ways in which they might be seen to foster various levels of engagement. They were: Colliding Particles, a set of short videos about physicists; I’m a Scientist, an innovative online project pitting teenagers’ questions against groups of scientists; the THE Blue Skies debate which was sparked off after a debate between one of my old students and Lord Drayson; crowd-sourced astronomy, Galaxy Zoo and Opal, another “citizen science project” which works in a range of ways, including embedding scientists in local communities (and has even managed to get lottery funding for ecological reserach, by also providing a form of social work at the same time).

We played around with comparing these projects, and largely failed. They all do good things. They are all limited. They are all worthy of celebration and critique for a lot of different reasons. They are all part of a broad ecology of science communication. To compare one with another is simply unfair; to rank them linearly would be ridiculous.

The deficit model is a big old pile of smelly poo, but let’s not be reductive in our replacement of it.