Category Archives: events

The known unknowns

I’m blogging from Cambridge; at the “Challenging Models in the Face of Uncertainty” conference. The focus is unknowns: be they known, unknown, guessed, forecast, imagined or experienced. I’ve heard Donald Rumsfield quoted rather a lot. There has also been  the odd reference how stupid we all are, the problems of a God’s-eye-view and, least we forget, black swans.

at conference

This morning started with a talk from Johan Rockström on his Planetary Boundaries framework. He quoted Ban Ki-moon line, that “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss”, adding that we are accelerating as if we were on a clear highway, driving in easy daylight conditions when, really Rockström argued, we’re on a dirt track, in the middle of the night. What science can/ should do, he suggested, is turn the headlights on en route to this abyss. Rockström’s talk was very clear, with some neat little twists on diagrams and the odd metaphorical flourish.

Steve Rayner, in the audience, picked up on this and asked Rockström to reflect on his own ways of signaling authority when transforming his work into a talk for non-expert audiences. Rockström’s response was largely to list names of colleagues and more detailed work. In other words, Rockström didn’t answer Rayner’s question: he simply re-articulated the symbols of authority he’d been asked to reflect upon. Rayner wasn’t suggesting Rockström didn’t have an empirical basis to his work (or that his work was wrong), just that when communicating this work outside of science, Rockström inevitably relies upon rhetoric, and it’d be useful for him to reflect on this role as a rhetorician. But he didn’t, and this was just left as a question.

The second talk was from Melissa Leach. She emphasised the multiple narratives surrounding the sorts of issues discussed at this conference, be they connected to climate change, the spread of disease, GMOs, ash-clouds, nanotechnology, or some other novel technology. She argued that we have a tendency to close down or re-articulate narratives of ignorance, ambiguity, uncertainty and surprise and instead move to ones of “risk”. The sense of control and order risk-framed narratives provide is sometimes very helpful, but it can also be deluded, and shut down possible pathways to useful action. Leach argued that we must open up politics to pay due attention to multiple narratives; to question dominance and authority, to increase the ideas and evidence available to us.

Ok, but how do you do this? For example, we might argue that the internet provides a great opportunity for the presentation of such a multiplicity of narratives and, moreover, an opportunity for such narratives to productively learn from/ change each other. At times it does just that. And yet, science blogging can also be deeply tribal, climate blogging especially so (and, I’d argue, considering its history, understandably so).

This evening, was a public lecture from Lord Krebs, on the complex interface between evidence, policy-making and uncertainty. He outlined three key tensions in this interface, each illustrated with examples. 1) Scientists disagree with each other, e.g. over bystander effect and pesticides. 2) Scientists sometimes just don’t know, even when they develop elaborate experiments to find out, e.g. with badger culling. 3) Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the science says, the politicians will be swayed by other issues, e.g. alcohol. I enjoyed Krebs’ talk. He had some really neat examples and there were some good discussion in the Q&A. Still, I left uninspired and unenlightened.

Lord Krebs talks badgers

Today, I’ve heard a lot of very old and (to me at least) very familiar talk about issues in science communication. I’ve seen a bit of new data and collected some new jargon, but I’m yet to come across any new ideas. I’ve been told that people believe what they want to believe, that science and the perception of it is culturally embedded, that the so-called experts are often as misleading and as likely to mislead as the so-called public, that science and politics make uneasy bedfellows and, of course, that it’s all terribly, terribly complicated.

But I knew that. I knew that ten years ago. I want something new.

Maybe I’m being unfair on this conference. I admit I’m tired and in need of a holiday. Also,  interdisciplinary events are always very difficult to pull off, and it is only half way through.

Maybe tomorrow will surprise me.

Taking science journalism “upstream”

row of boatsToday I spoke at Science Online London as part of a plenary panel session curated by David Dobbs and also featuring Martin Robbins and Ed Yong on “Rebooting” (aka the future of) science journalism. This is the typed-up version of my talk, along with links and extra bits of context.

As the academic on the panel (not to mention the only one that isn’t, shhhh, in any way a journalist) I thought I’d focus on an idea: an invite to take things “upstream”.

That probably sounds dirtier than it should.

The term “upstream” is (a) a metaphor and (b) jargon. Both of which I apologise for. The concept has been incredibly influential in the engagement end of science communication work. Science communicators use it all the time, they even tell each other off when they’re “not upstream enough”. But has never really carried through to journalism.

In essence, it’s an argument for showing more of science in the making, not just waiting for publication of “ready-made” peer-reviewed papers.

Imagine science as a river.  Upstream, we have the early stages of communication about some area of science: meetings, literature reviews or general lab gossip. Gradually these ideas are worked through, and the communicative output flows downstream towards the peer-reviewed and published journal article and perhaps, via a press release and maybe even a press conference, some mass media reporting. Let’s not get too carried away with this metaphor though, or we’ll just end up with boring stories about scientists going rafting (it also relies on what is, arguably, an over-linear model of science, but that’s a whole other argument).

The term “upstream engagement” has various antecedents, but really stems from a (2004) report from think-tank Demos, See Through Science, by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis. They argued that science communication initiatives had become over-dominated by questions of risk, which they felt, was too late in the process. The March 2006 POST note (pdf) provides a good example of the difference between early and late (upstream and downstream) engagement, drawing on reactions to GMOs. It refers to a 1994 consensus conference funded by the BBSRC and held at the Science Museum anticipated issues surrounding genetic modification (GM) of plants and involved publics at an early stage. In comparison, they argue that the 2003 GM Nation project, although government-funded and promised to take up recommendations, it was “too little, too late” (POST, 2006: 2). GM Nation asked people to respond to what had been delivered to them, whereas the 1994 event had given people access and, simply, insight into what might be delivered.

Wilsdon and Willis were heavily influenced by Stephen Hilgartner’s (2000) book about US science policy, Science on Stage, and echoing this they have a lot of fun with theatrical metaphors:

The task of upstream engagement is to remove some of the structures that divide the back-stage from the front-stage. It seeks to make visible the invisible, to expose to public scrutiny the values, visions and assumptions that usually lie hidden. In the theatre of science and technology, the time has come to dismantle the proscenium arch and begin performing in the round (Wilsdon & Willis, 2004: 24)

I should note, the idea has its critics, e.g. Dick Taverne’s letter to Nature or, somewhat more thoughtfully, William Cullerne Bown. Still, these are exceptions. Listening to some of David Willetts’ statements on public engagement, I suspect he is a fan of working upstream (or is at least has been briefed by someone who read that POSTnote).

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that journalists haven’t really taken it up though. The idea of upstream engagement is to fix problems in the relationships between science and society. The government like this, clearly, so write POSTnotes and fund things like ScienceWise, but it’s not the business of journalism to deal with it. They just want to sell papers. They have their own rules to play with (c.f. Andy Williams’ reference to news values in the recent Times Higher piece on science writing).

But I think upstream science journalism offers something sell-able. It’s based on theatre after all. It swaps that cliché of “scientists have found” for “scientists are doing”. It focuses on “scientists find interesting”, “scientists wonder” or “scientists are excited by”. Actually, I’d hope it looses the sloppy generalisation of “scientists” and instead introduce researchers with rather less anonymity. That’s part of the point. It lets the audience look science right in the eye and see it in all its glory (beauty and wonder; warts and all).

I suspect people are waiting to respond with the criticism that it is irresponsible to report work that isn’t peer-reviewed (ooo and here it ista Evan).  Although I have sympathy this issue, I’d also say it’s a lazy stick with which beat science journalists with, not to mention somewhat supportive of the publishing industry. But upstream science journalism can be done responsibly, and without tripping over patents or embargoes. Remember, the focus is more on the people, their ideas, worries and enthusiasms, not the results. Moreover, I  still want a place for “downstream” science reporting. The publication of a major paper is a news event worth covering. I’m not dismissing a creative, articulate, probing and context-bringing write-up of peer-reviewed research in the slightest. Done well, it can be a beautiful and important thing. There is also, I think, a lot to be said for what we might call “really, really far downstream” reporting: maybe we need more about what happens to science after publication. Science journalism should follow scientists all the way through society (yes, that is a Latour reference and yes I have read Amsterdamska’s review).

I also think science journalism would be served well by taking itself upstream, not only working to show how science is made, but making its own workings more visible too. Upstream engagement was, after all, designed to deal with a crisis in trust. Perhaps a bit more upstream communication would help  science journalists to gain trust from their audiences, and from the scientific community. This would include openness, but also involving their audiences (upstream, and meaningfully, not only letting them comment at the end of the process).

I don’t think this call to move upstream offers something drastically new. I use it as a nice phrase to, I hope, encourage and focus attention in this area. I think it is already being done, and new media is making more feasible (and showing there is a market for). As Vincent Kiernan argued during last year’s WCSJ’s fight over embargoes, new media mitigates against what John Rennie called “Big paper of the week syndrome”, the reliance on cycles of “pseudo-news” about what happens to have been published in one of the larger journals (see also the embargowatch blog for fascinating tracking of these tensions).

My favourite example has to be this video of the ICHEP conference hosted on the Guardian. I’ve also noticed recently that Times health correspondent David Rose uses twitter not just to post links to finished pieces, but as news comes in. It’s also worth mentioning the interactive way Mark Henderson has used his twitter account in conjunction with the Times’ Eureka blog (especially during the election), as well as others who favour the “DVD extras” approach to blogging alongside traditional journalism. Further, the Guardian’s science storytracker gives insight into the evolution of a story, and it was interesting to see the the Guardian’s health team use their Datastore during the death rates investigation. In terms of “really far downstream” (in a good way) science journalism, I think Gaia Vince’s blog is a nice example.

This death rates points us towards a possible pitfall: Ben Goldacre’s criticism of their stats, and more to the point, that such open data needs to come with “open methodology” too. As I said at the time, however, precisely because it is so complex, an approach which is iteratively discursive (rather than momentarily confrontational) is perhaps the most likely to succeed. There are also, in the business of journalism, matters of competition to be remembered: the worry of being scooped (perhaps beautifully demonstrated by this story). As with be careful of embargoes and patents (competition issues in science), I think it’s a matter of being careful, being clever and being imaginative. Maybe the tweeting of political journalists during the election is a nice example?

This sort of upstream work can be pretty niche. A nice example of that being exchange between Evan Harris and Jon Butterworth over “if” you wanted to know about supersymmetry. But that’s why it can work online, because you can find those niche markets (e.g. first comment on Jon’s post). We might similarly argue that it doesn’t provide news, but again the web might be of here, as people come to content at different times and through a range of routes: I think blogging has already started to blur boundaries between feature and news piece when it comes to science writing.

The niche point does, however, point us towards the best argument against upstream science journalism: that it’d would be boring. Maybe that scientists go rafting feature was a bit dull. But people write dull pieces based on research papers all the time. If a science journalist thinks scientists at work is boring, then I think they are in the wrong job. Similarly, if they think the ideas and knowledge of their readers is boring, I suspect they’re increasingly find they are in the wrong job.

I don’t think moving science journalism upstream will solve all its problems. Neither do I think the concept offers something drastically new: it’s already happening. Still, thinking about upstream as a one of the many possible new forms for science journalism might focus attention in a fruitful direction. Or maybe it’s a ridiculous mis-application of what is a slightly aging and rather self-indulgent idea in the first place. Tell me your thoughts.

EDIT (September 2010): You can see a video of the session.

EDIT (March 2011): I have been amazed by the way the online science writing community have taken to this – e.g. a mention in David Rowan’s speech on How to Save Science Journalism and, especially, the the newly launched PLoS blog Science Upstream.

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.

UK Science Blogging "Talkfest"

Beck Smith of the Biochemistry Society and I would like to invite you to our Science Blogging Talkfest, Charles Darwin House, WC1N, 15th July. Registration is free, and online.

We’ll start at 6pm with drinks, chat and cake over registration. From 7-8:30pm, we’ll move into the lecture theatre for the debate. Then I thought we might go to the pub.

As several people have already pointed out, our panel is entirely made up of bloggers: Petra Boynton, Jon Butterworth, Mark Henderson, Alok Jha, Andy Lewis, Ed Yong. This is something we’re actually quite proud of.

I’ve noticed that a lot of debates around this issue have got stuck in questions of blogging vs “traditional” journalism, which missed out on the chance to talk about blogging as something real, something that is happening (has been happening for a while) and is both exciting and problematic in its right. This isn’t necessarily a big old love-in, it is a chance to grow. Neither is this to say that blogging vs. journalism isn’t a debate still worth having. You go off and have it if you’re interested. We want to talk about blogging. And we have cake.

Maybe we are “limiting” the scope of the debate slightly by framing it with a panel of bloggers. But there is only a limited amount of things any group of people can say in a few hours. I quite strongly believe that far from stifling a debate on blogging, this focus will encourage something more meaningful.

As Alok Jha tweeted: the strength of the project is that there’ll be no time wasted on definitions, more sharing of constructive ideas. I also happen to think there are a host of in-fights, debates, differences, mis-understandings and discontinuities within science blogosphere which get glossed over when it is put in a position where it has to defend itself.

We’ll be asking the audience for questions on the day, but I’d really like hear some in advance too. Please put them in the comments below (or email me). I should also stress that we want audience members to comment on questions, and answer them too. This isn’t going to be an event where we all sit waiting for the panellists to impart their great wisdom, I’m planning on drawing on the knowledge and ideas of the audience too.

You can reserve a place here. Do come, and let me know any questions in advance.

Should science engage?

Gregory and Miller start their 1998 introduction to Science Communication, Science in Public, with the “new commandment from on high: Thou shalt communicate”. Twelve years on, we might re-articulate this as “Thou shalt engage” but Gregory and Miller’s tongue in cheek questioning of an enterprise we generally assume is A Good Thing is worth retaining. This is not to say public engagement with science and technology (PEST) is a bad thing, just that it’s a big topic and worth thinking about what we mean before we blithely go about doing it. I also wonder if recent events, such as climate-gate or the economic downturn, have changed our attitudes to science communication policy in the UK.

I was prompted to ask this at the Science Communication Conference last week. Specifically, I was struck by the difference between Jacquie Burgess’ talk, and a similar one she gave at the first of these conferences, back in 2002. I wrote a report on the event for CoPUS, and still remember her presentation in 2002 quite vividly (pdf here).

In 2002, Burgess was a Professor in the Geography Department at UCL, a world expert on the environment and society, she spoke calmly, authoritatively and with a refreshing amount of cynicism. She complained that the results of so many public consultations end up left sitting on a desk somewhere, that she (and moreover, the public stakeholders) were fed up with being involved in processes which go nowhere. Engagement sometimes feels like a lot of talk with little outcomes. She also said this:

“in the rather touchy-feely overcrowded field of public participation there are few processes that genuinely seek arguments”.

I remember feeling inspired by that statement, and it is one that has stayed with me. I am not sure it works in all contexts, sometimes a bit of agreement is better than an argumentative stance. Still, there is a place for a bit of a friendly squabble too.

At the 2010 event, Burgess is still a world authority on the environment and society, now Professor of Environmental Risk at the UEA. But she looked scared, quiet and nervous. Haunted almost. It could just have been the bad lighting at in the lecture theatre, but her whole message was different. She complained about the emotive state of public debate over climate change, especially in the blogosphere, which she likened to play-ground bullying (the mainstream press were criticised too though). Most surprisingly for me, she suggested that climate science, or at least parts of it, should lay low for a bit. They shouldn’t engage with the deniers (or “agnostics”, or anyone), but hide out for a while, keep out of sight until everything had calmed down. Even when the time had come for engagement, she suggested it might be best to avoid the internet, and instead spend time re-engaging with nature (she mentioned the Eden Project, Tim Smit had just addressed the conference). No actively seeking arguments now, it was positively “touchy-feely”.

A fair few people rolled their eyes at some of Burgess’ points, but I doubt they came from anything other than thoughtful reflection. I wouldn’t I agree with a distinction between internet and engagement with the natural environment. I’m drafting this on my laptop sitting in Gordon Square; if Wellcome’s wifi signal stretched this far, I’d use the web to check what type of flower is growing next to me. (NB: I very much doubt Professor Burgess applies naive nature/ culture/ technology divisions). Still, the UEA and it’s “climategate” is, perhaps, a special case. Maybe laying low for a bit is wise. Or, maybe because it’s such a special case there is even more reason to find a way to engage with various publics (argumentatively or otherwise). I don’t know. It is worth thinking about though.

To add a couple of other lines of caution over the worth of engagement, a lot of PEST work could be critiqued in the same way we criticise more old fashioned “top-down” science communication, that it acts to keep the public in their place. It may explicitly exist to connect people, but its very existence only acts to emphasise their differences. This in itself isn’t necessarily a worry, scientists and non-scientists are, afterall, different cultural groups. A more pressing concern perhaps, especially when the results of dialogue projects just end up on desks, that they act simply as a form of rhetorical hand-wave toward public participation. I was interested to read in the news this week that Brian Wynne had resigned from the steering committee of a government-commissioned public dialogue on GM Food, complaining it was little more than propaganda for the food industry. Perhaps the PEST project is just a way of making the public feel like they’ve done something so they don’t bother politicians by seeking out real social change. I should note that a colleague of mine, Sarah Davies, has written persuasively about what she calls “non-policy dialogue” in sites like the Dana Center. Again, I don’t know but I think the more cynical questions are at least worth asking.

There is also the very simple question of whether scientists are better off working on the science. Either leave science communication to the professionals, or perhaps simply don’t bother, if the public don’t want to talk or listen to scientists, why poke at them to “engage”? Perhaps we could all use our energies more efficiently. Recently, in a blogpost reacting to Martin Rees’ first Reith Lecture, Micheal Brooks suggested that the Royal Society should shift their emphasis from public communication and towards politics: forget fellowship placements for scientists to spend time working in media outlets, embed them in Whitehall instead. Young scientists should gain experience of politics and think about developing careers and influence there. I’m not sure I agree with the either/ or distinction here (in fact I disagree quite strongly) but it is an interesting point, and it is worth noting that the Economics and Social Research Council is very active in this area.

I have no answer to the question of whether engagement is a good idea or not. I suspect there are many different answers for many different contexts. I’d be interested to know what other people think. Have experiences of climategate or years of not-much-actual-action on PEST projects caused UK science communication to start to turn its back on the enterprise? If not, then at least are there times and places where/when science shouldn’t engage, and what are they?