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.