Category Archives: web

Vannevar Bush, science, the world’s brain and inventing the web

This was first published in the July edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read August’s piece on health data. See their new rates for educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).

memex

The web’s origin story generally goes something like this: Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working at CERN in the late 1990s, wanted to find a way to deal with increasing desire to share information across the intricate global network of scientists working on the project, and found a way to connect an earlier idea of his, for a hypertext database system, to the Internet.

There’s a lovely – though somewhat Romanticised – story of Berners-Lee being inspired the culture of the CERN canteen: All these clever people from all the world and different disciplines sitting together, exchanging their cleverness, the web was just a way of sharing that experience with everyone.

A bit of science funding PR often gets spun out of this. All that money on physics research at CERN? Don’t worry, because, aside from the fact that studying the universe is a fine aim for humanity in itself, we got the web out of it. OK. But we could have got the web from lots of scientists being brought together on another ambitious problem. And that’s where an earlier character in this origin story comes in: Vannevar Bush.

Bush is often credited in the history of the web in terms of his influence on the idea of hypertext via something called the Memex (more on this later). But he played a key role in creating the social context that CERN emerged from too, and I think he should get some of the credit for that too.

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor, public intellectual and, perhaps most importantly, administrator of mid 20th century America. Born in 1890, after studying science at university he worked for General Electric for a few years before moving to MIT to do a PhD in electrical engineering. Work in industry, academia and the military followed, and he eventually became Vice President and Dean of engineering at MIT in 1938.

He’d been aware of a lack of connection between science and the military during World War One so, as the US entered World War Two, worked hard to set up official federal systems for more strategic coordination of scientific energies. He became director of the newly established Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, which included the initiation and administration of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project is significant not just in terms of the outcome of the Atomic bomb, but the way it brought together a large number of scientists from around the world and a range of subjects, to work on a strategic goal with an enormous budget, left a mark on the way we subsequently organised science.

The Manhattan Project wasn’t unprecedented, but it was a step in a set of changes to the way we organised science which led up to much more peace-time orientated projects such as CERN. The Manhattan Project did not cause some singular radical change in the development of science, but arguably it did accelerate shifts that were already taking place. Big Science is not simply a 20th century phenomenon any more than “scientists” only arrived in 1833 when William Whewell coined that term. Darwin’s correspondence (which you can read if you fancy getting lost down the rabbit hole of Victorian natural history) shows the degrees to which even seemingly “gentleman” individual science was highlight networked. Astronomy also offers case studies of multi-national networks of astronomers utilising large telescopes and in pay of industry and military stretching centuries. There’s a reason Brecht uses an astronomer to talk about the morality of 20th century science in his play A Life of Galileo. But there was something about the particular scale of the Manhattan Project and subsequent work. A physicist in early 20th C would know the handful of experts in their field, working directly with a few and corresponding with others, easily catching up with developments. In the early 21st, and I have a physicist friend who uses Ctrl Alt F to locate his name on papers.

Not everyone loved this change. The term Big Science was popularised by Alvin Weinberg, writing in the journal Science in 1961, complaining it was somewhat of a corruption of what science should and can be for society: “We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth; we use our Big Science to add to our country’s prestige, they used their churches for their cities’ prestige” he mourned.

That “Memex” thing is also part of the tensions surrounding this shift in how we made and connected expertise. Writing in The Atlantic in 1945, Bush reflected on the sheer quantity of information he came across on any day, and the diversity of ways in which this information might link to one another. He felt the “growing mountain of research” quite acutely, and felt quite bogged down by all the multitude of findings of various specialised branches of research:

The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

This is something many will identify with today. But it’s no surprise that someone coming out of Manhattan Project strategy felt it so acutely. As a way of dealing with this, Bush imagined a machine which allowed for the non-linear filing and retrieval of information. This is Bush’s idea:

[the reader] finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him. And his trails do not fade.

Recognise it? Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, and the Wikimedia Foundation both credit this idea. HG Wells had a similar idea with the “World Brain” in the late 1930s, though you can maybe see Wells’ socialism driving a slightly different concept and arguably it’s Bush’s Memex which had the most resonance.

Vannevar Bush lived through and was shaped by big science, but he also helped bolster its rise through the key role he played in the way 20th century science was run. We usually credit Tim Berners-Lee with the invention of the web. And so we should. But when people use the web as some sort of spin-off of the science done at CERN they are only telling half the story. If anything, the administration of science gave us the web, not science itself. We’d do well to recognise the impact the work such administrations have.

Troll Below? Science policy below the line.

troll

Some streetart on a bridge in Dublin

I have an essay in James Wilsdon and Rob Doubleday’s collection: “Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall” (downloadable for free). It’s an invitation for the various greats and goods of science policy to not only use social media to promote their ideas but to “go below the line” and listen to the public there too. I know such listening is problematic – I’m not about to try to rehearse all the problems here, they exist and are generally very specific to the people and cases involved – but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

There’s a shorter version on our Guardian blog, or here’s a preview of the full thing:

We should ask what we want openness to mean online, what forms we want to invest in, and how this should be organised. There is a lot more to open science than simply open access. Indeed, a preoccupation with the latter as a solution to social ills may well be a way of avoiding dealing with the former. Further, how we choose to finance and manage forms of open access is far from straightforward. Whilst politicians, scientists, publishers and learned societies argue it out, the #icanhazpdf hashtag is gradually whittling away at current publishing models (used so people looking for paywalled papers can find those with institutional log-ins who are willing to be generous on their library’s behalf). Scientists may feel persecuted by activists, especially if they engage in debates over climate change, alternative medicine or animal rights. They may also feel that when work flows into ‘social media’, even more of their private lives are being taken over by work. Online interaction can be tiring.

A related issue is whether the public can be trusted with science in the open. One might, for example, feel pleased when the Science Media Centre manages to keep a story out of the press (as when I heard senior scientists cheer in the case of a story about GMO food last year). Alternatively, one could follow the lead of the Cancer Research UK news blog which accepts that stories they don’t agree with will get published, but uses the more open spaces of the web to put extra context out there, hoping those who care will find it. One recent piece of research argues that the ‘incivil’ tone of web comments can derail evidence-based public debate on science, technology and especially environmental and health issues. For all that I can personally relate to this (having uncomfortably found myself being incivil myself, as well as at the receiving end of incivility), such calls for polite behavior online leave me uneasy. Complaints about ‘tone’ are too easily used to quell dissent. Words like ‘troll’ can become a proxy for what is, at best, disagreement, and worst, class hatred.

It is now 18 years since Bruce Lewenstein suggested a ‘web model’ as an alternative to top-down ideas of science communication in his study of the cold fusion controversy. This networked view seems almost too obvious today, as gross a simplification as the deficit model. But it contains an important message that is increasingly hard to ignore: the simple messiness of scientific discourse. Although neater debate has its uses, especially in policymaking, that doesn’t mean we should aim to tidy it all up. This mess is how we build capacity for more coherent exchanges, build trust, learn and digest. It is also where people can show dissent and support for science, both of which are important. We should be wary of being too spooked by the incivility or apparent lack of expertise online. As science policy debate bleeds onto social media, we shouldn’t be scared to take a dip below the line, and take some time to look and listen. You never know what we might find.

For personal reasons – and partly to make a slightly tongue in cheek point – comments are closed for this entry.

Science policy and social media

Up and Atom

ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m part of a new blog network at the Guardian, “Political Science“. I’ll keep this for more personal/ niche content though. My first post there considers the way the public (or forms of publicity) are used to help reform science in the All Trails campaign. It’s based on a short talk I gave at the STEPS conference at Sussex this week, the full text of which follows.

The Royal Institution is up for sale. There are many interesting things about the fuss this has caused. One of which is that Harry Kroto has taken to twitter. It seems like that’s what happens when scientists get angry these days.

Social media is increasingly playing a role in science policy campaigns: All Trials Registered, All Results Reported (or the more 140c friendly alltrails), the anti-anti-GM “Don’t Destroy Research” and Science is Vital being just a few notable examples.

It’s an interesting development which as scholars of the field we should look at in more detail. From a more normative point of view, we might also welcome it as a sign of a greater openness in lobbying around science; making it more scrutinizable, more accountable and possibly more able to learn from a broader, more diverse, set of perspectives. Still, there are questions to ask and criticisms to make. Just because there are small moments of openness doesn’t mean that the majority of power brokering in science is still, if not outright secret, rather esoteric. Openness can be rhetorically applied and we need to think about that. Moreover, hashtags have histories and hierarchies as much as anything else; there are cultures and contingencies to consider here, as any campaign located in a specific social context. (Arguably, one of the reasons we’ve seen it in the UK is the relatively grassroots structure of our sceptics movement, and the experience of Libel Reform is important too.) It’s also worth reflecting on the ways in which ideas of the public and publicity are being used here and how this is similar and different from the rhetorical use of, for example, public polling data or protests putting bodies out in the street.

It’s not exactly new. I dug out my notes for a talk I gave on the topic at 2010  Science Online London conference (read text version and comment thread on blogpost I wrote at the time). There had been a lot of social media activity around the election, largely coalescing around the twitter hashtag “scivote”. I stressed that, as a hashtag, offered a connection; a folksonomical collective and dynamic socially constructed way of classifying. It connected people to events, information, ideas, debates and, quite simply, other people. It let individuals develop knowledge and interest and fostered community. You weren’t just the one person in the lab who was feeling a bit grumpy about the government, you were part of something larger. You didn’t have to feel weird about being a bit political. Still, none these connections happened entirely online and we  have to remember how much of a role much less public work happens around these online campaigns. The Science is Vital campaign, for example, gradually gathered expertise and steam from a few tweets and blogpost, but it also built on the infrastructure, contacts, profile and expertise of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (amongst others). That’s not to say Science Is Vital had no impact, it arguably let the more traditional lobbyists express a constituency that cared about these issues. That’s powerful political rhetoric.

It’s striking that although many of the online science policy campaigns have a grassroots-y feel to the, they are promoting rather traditional top-down expressions of scientific expertise and reflecting, if not emphasizing preexisting power networks. In one of the various obits of the Rio +20 talks this summer, John Vidal claimed the end fossil fuel subsidies and save the Arctic campaigns were “eye-catching global bottom-up initiatives”. They weren’t.

(When someone says “bottom up” always ask “whose bottom?”)

These campaigns were more about enumerating the actors of public relations than diffusing political power. They expressed a public, they didn’t try to involve them. And I think that’s how we can the recent scientific community based campaigns too; they don’t seem to have any particular interest in finding new opinions, just show there are people who have the same opinion as them. They didn’t want new questions, just more people to sign up to their answers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we can have public campaigns as well as public debate – as long as we recognise what we are looking at.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that both Libel reform and Science is Vital picked up a lot of expertise along with the more passive clickativist support: Lawyers, lobbyists, designers, programmers. In that respect it’s a different from the slicker professionalised projects we’ve seen from environmental campaigners.

It also strikes me that All Trials is especially interesting because it’s about publicizing absence of evidence and saying a bit of the medical science is broken. It’s being open about problems, albeit in a rather tightly framed way. And I think there’s a lot of potential there. I’m just not sure I’ve seen it realised yet.

Being noisy about science

Here’s the podcast for an event on the sounds of science I chaired at Charles Darwin House last week.

The inspiration for the event was mainly just that I like making a noise. I also like listening to podcasts and I quite like science too. Moreover, I think that the noises made by and about science bring out some of the texture of scientific work, and let us reflect upon the stories we tell about science (things I think are worth doing).

Our panellists covered audio-storytelling about science from polished BBC documentaries about instruction manuals (really, it’s great: go listen) to slightly rawer clips of spaceships launching (listen, put the sound up and watch your room shake). We also had an oral history of engineering, podcasts on Swine Flu for doctors to listen to in the bath and a bit of electronic music fashioned from the sounds of Tottenham Court Road.

For me, the best bit came near the end when the audience started sharing memories of sounds made in the course of scientific work. Someone mentioned the way biochemists learn the art of recognising the right sound of a centrifuge when preparing cultures. One audience member mentioned the noise of telescopes (and you can hear this lovely Guardian podcast for some more on this), another shared her aural memories of working in anesthetics (there is a documentary in the sounds of surgery, I’m sure). A historian shared an amazing story about an artist he’d met who’d done some work on atomic weapon research sites, where she wasn’t allowed to take photos or write anything down but was (surprisingly?) allowed to record sounds. So she’d recorded the sound of the centrifuge which still gave a strong sense of place. I also remembered some stories of the history of atomic science, when it shifted from looking for particles to listening to traces of them, and young scientists would be employed because they had good ears rather than eyes and early radio enthusiasts had helped develop the technical kit required to do this research (this is only a sketchy memory of a talk from Jeff Hughes I once heard, sorry if I’ve got it wrong).

I’ve been listening out to sounds around me ever since; thinking about ones I take for granted, finding new ones.

EDITED TO ADD: via David Pantalony, on twitter, a great STS paper on listening to laboratories (pdf)

Context context context

Context context context. It’s what the mainstream media’s reporting on science always lacks, isn’t it? It’s the oft-repeated line ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that’ which media critics such as myself can grump about from the cosiness of their ivory tower. Context context context: Easy to say, but hard to provide?

Context context context: Easy to say. For example, our content analysis for the BBC Trust’s review of impartiality and accuracy in science coverage (blogged about earlier this week) highlighted quite hand-waving descriptions of scientists’ roles and work, with a reliance on phrases such as ‘scientists have found’ and ‘experts say’. We also noted little exploration of experimental design, and that it was very rare that the funder of research was referred to. We worried that many reports relied on a single viewpoint or paraphrased alternative views, and the lack of explicit reference as to whether or not a contributor was involved in the research being reported (i.e. independence was hard to judge).

Context context context: Hard to provide? A journalist can easily, and quite fairly, reply to calls for more context with the argument that readers do not care. Of course the big wide world is more complex than depicted in the mass media, but a large part of a journalist’s job is to simplify this world, and that inevitably means losing some context. Personally, I think there are still ways journalists might rethink the traditional patterns for telling stories, and I expect professional journalists of the calibre working at the BBC to be imaginative and thoughtful about what parts of stories they choose to provide (and I know the good ones do, and that they are constrained in a lot of their work too).

One of the things we coded for in the study was if a piece pointed the audience to other information: the chance for people to find out more if they wanted to. This didn’t have to be online links, but would often be. We noticed it was rare that the broadcast news items ever explicitly directed viewers to the BBC website for further information about science items. In the online news, there were automatically generated links to other BBC reports on similar topics, but only 21 items (16%) included links to other BBC reports within the body of the text. However, almost 90% of online news items included at least one link to the source of the story, such as the laboratory where the research was carried out or the journal where it was published, but 70 items (54%) included no links to other external sources. So, over half of online news items the reader is not offered opportunities to find further information relevant to a science story other than that provided by the source.

Blogs in particular offer the opportunity of linking to other sources and, by enabling journalists to “show their working”, may help make visible the process of reporting too. Some of the BBC reporters’ blogs we looked at made use of this, particularly those of Jonathan Amos and Richard Black, but only one of Tom Feilden’s blogposts in our sample period contained any in-text links to sites other than the Today programme. Blogs also allow journalists to post longer quotes from sources than the edited versions included in broadcast reports, include links to other sources of information that the journalist has used to build their story, or track unfolding stories (as with the Guardian’s Science Story Tracker). However, we found few examples of this type of usage in the BBC blogs we looked at.

Like much of the content we looked at, blogs were more likely to mention benefits of scientific research than risks (eleven of the 27 unique postings cited benefits compared to just two mentioning risks). It seemed to us that as with a lot of the online science content (and science content overall), the blogs located science as a ‘good-news’ story where science provides benefits to society and is rarely the source of any risks. As with any of this, you may well be able to dig up an example or three to argue that the BBC blogs are ‘anti-science’ in some way (and this singular examples may well be very important, perhaps even because they are singular) but looking at our sample as a whole, this was not the picture we saw.

We saw a range of ways of using the blogging form amongst the science and technology reporters that blog for the BBC. Some reporters took the chance to contextualise news stories they have reported on (Richard Black), or to offer a more personal take on a story (Fergus Walsh). Others would trail upcoming items (Susan Watts), to summarise/ repeat a news item in another site, or describe related research (Tom Feilden, Jonathan Amos). Potentially, adopting a personal voice raises issues with respect to the BBC’s impartiality (there are editorial guidelines on this), although we found no evidence in the blogs we looked that it had actually compromised impartiality in action. If anything blogs can also offer a space to address questions of impartiality and accuracy when they arise though. We found a lovely example of this from Rory Cellan-Jones, where he reflected on an report for the BBC One News at Ten, saying he should have been he should have taken a more sceptical tone, and also took the chance to quote at length the scientist’s defence of the research.

You can find more details of this study in the full report (opens as pdf) especially pages 33-38.

As I’ve written before, the placing of a link is a rhetorical and, as such, creative process. Thinking about what you’ll link to, how and when (and when not to) is a challenge I personally adore when I write, and one of the many reasons I find writing online more professionally fulfilling than print. It really doesn’t seem to be used enough though, or thought about as much as it could be either (n.b. this is a general grumble, broader and looser than the BBC Trust study).

So, I guess for now I’ll keep banging on about ‘context, context, context’, knowing it’s hard for journalists to provide it but hoping they continue to try to be as imaginative and proactive as possible in facilitating connections between the information that is out there and those members of their audience who are interested to find out more.

Towards a multigenerational debate about science

Last week, I was supposed to be one of the speakers at the World Conference of Science Journalists, part of a session on reaching younger audiences. For various reasons (some including ambulances…) I didn’t actually get to give my talk. This post is a linked-up version of what I would have said. The images are screengrabs from an old website, Planet Jemma, which is discussed near the end.

One of the rare bits of research on young people and online science media was conducted back in 2004 by some communication researchers in Florida, published as Attracting Teen Surfers to Science Web Sites in the Public Understanding of Science journal. I know it’s old work, but it’s their attitude I’m interested in here, not the primary data. They concluded that attracting teens to science websites can be difficult because when teenagers do go online, they do so for social interaction and entertainment, not to be educated. They seem to be a little disturbed by this, or at least see it as a problem to be managed.

I don’t think they should be disturbed though. I think they should be excited.

Let me give some background. In recent years, much of the discussion about the public communication of science and technology has focused on what we might broadly see as a shift from a top-down model to a more distributive approach; models which stress the need for scientists to listen to the public, and the role of public-to-public communication in the construction of ideas about science. Many science communication professionals now see their job as facilitating conversations, not providing ready-made polished stories (see this post for more on that).

It is rare, however, that we see this approach followed through when it comes to work with young people. The idea of ‘discovery learning’ was briefly popular in the late 20th century (put kids in a classroom with a load of science kit, let them discover it for themselves). However, as many educational researchers pointed out, this is rather naive: it only works if we actually believe scientific research comes from such uncomplicated, quick interaction with physical entities. In reality, science teachers accommodated students’ results that did not fit the expected outcome. They were demonstrations, not experiments; activities wrapped up in a rhetoric of discovery. Additionally, when young people are asked to debate science policy issues or ethics in class – as we see increasingly English science curriculum – this is seen as a rehearsal for democratic engagement in later life; the kids aren’t going to be listened to as kids.

This shift from providing polished stories to facilitating conversations isn’t unique to science communication. Developments in media technology and cultures surrounding these have led to changes in the way journalists consider the people formally known as the audience; changes I do not need to repeat here. There is also a specific debate within children’s media about the history and politics of adult-to-child narration. It should be remembered that so call-ed ‘children’s media’ is usually given to young people, not produced by them. Even writers aiming at a ‘child-centered’ approach will draw on memories of their childhood which may well be out of date and framed by adult worries. David Buckingham, riffing off Jacqueline Rose, talks about a form of generational drag; adults acting as if they were children, based on an adult conception of what a child is.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing science across generations. Indeed, we might think of science as a generational activity, and the lengthy time frames of science is something I think we need to acknowledge. But we should also be aware of when exactly younger people are asked to speak rather than being spoken for, how much freedom they have, and how often they are listened to.

I will now briefly introduce a few examples of UK science communication websites aimed at young people, before offering two conclutions.

First up: SciCast. Here, children are invited to make short films about science and share them. There is a competition for the best ones every year, and they have a big Oscars-style awards do (finalists announced last week). There are some gems on the site: do go and have look. Let’s not pretend it is unmediated kid-to-kid communication though. Kids are drawing on the ideas of adult scientists, some of which are long dead too. They are also using adult-made media technology, and I’m sure some videos were lead by parents or teachers. It’s also a competition, judged by adults, so kids work to their idea of adult expectations. But I don’t think it pretends to be adult free either. Indeed, the project invites adult professionals to leave feedback, and gives feedback itself, because they see this as a productive part of the process.

Secondly: I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here. Scientists are put in zones with four others, each zone is matched to a set of schools. The scientists introduce themselves with a profile, and then the school students ask them questions. It runs for a bit over a week, and adopts the loose structure of reality TV show; the scientists get voted off daily so they compete to give good answers. Here the kids do not produce content, but rather lead it with their questions (and the content is sometimes slightly scrappy forum post answers from scientists, not carefully constructed literary prose). The questions are diverse – about the scientists as people as well as factual – as are the scientists who are everyday working researchers rather than the super-star presenters you might see on TV, and the project is proud of the way it communicates a sense of how science really works. Another key point to stress about I’m a Scientist is that the questions are not always resolved: a lot of scientists simply reply with ‘I don’t know’ (see this post and comment thread for some discussion, as well as this video made by one of the contestants).

SciCast and I’m a Scientist are unusual though. Most science media for young people is made for them, not by them. Moreover, although some may offer forms of interaction, it is worth questioning whether this is interactivity or, more simply, ‘activity’. So here’s my third example: Energy Ninjas, a science computer game developed for use on gallery at the Science Museum, which you can also play online. It has a loose narrative, though you have some control over the order. You move around a city, pick a site to enter and watch the Energy Ninjas chastise people for their carbon consumption. Where you choose to click will have some impact on your route through the game, but it won’t impact on the structure of the game itself, or even change the outcome of any loose story it contains. What you as player choose to click on certainly doesn’t get fed into science, or science policy.  It’s reasonably standard as the genre of these mini-science games go. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of the limits of user involvement here.

Finally: Planet Jemma. It’s from 2003 and not online anymore (edit: a demo version is now up), but I think it’s fascinating and so worth sharing with you, so I’ve included some screengrabs the developers had archived, and there are some reviews online (this is interesting, and do see the comment thread includes response from developer). There’s also a Guardian article about it. This tells a story of Jemma a physics student in her early months at university, though emails sent to you as if you were an old friend from back home. You learn a bit of the science she is learning, but also about her life at university. The emails you get relate to where you’ve clicked on an associated website which includes videos and photo stories. Think of it as database-driven personalised narrative. This is a very good example of adult writers aping kid-to-kid discussion (see earlier point about ‘generational drag’). However, I should stress this was 2003. I’m sure the developers would have loved to have brought more of the actual teenage audience into making the story rather than just being the recipients and characters in it, something which is simply easier to do now. I’d love to see a project of this level of imagination and narrative complexity run today, but with the various technological and cultural resources we now have available.

Conclusion one: We should be honest about generational issues at play here. Don’t pretend to be providing a child’s voice when it’s an adult’s one, be aware of how adults are framing, possibly curtailing, children’s interactions with science (and why – they may have reasons for doing so). We should also be honest about the age of scientific content discussed with and by young people. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with young people talking about old ideas, or using old ways to demonstrate them (in some ways, it’s quite exciting that people back in the 18thC did similar tricks to demonstrate science that we o today), but I do think we should be honest about this long history, even aim to explicitly pull it out. Moreover, rather than looking at communication patterns as just top-down or side-to-side, maybe we need to think about co-constructed multi-generational media; both in the construction of content, and its audiences.

Conclusion two: there are a host of projects getting kids to work with scientists, even to be involved in the scientific research. Why not get kids doing science journalism, with science journalists, too? Why not get science journalists doing ‘outreach’? Yes, there is SciCast and some projects to get schoolkids scienceblogging. My mother told be me about a science radio project in North London in the ’80s. But why not more of this? Moreover, why not include the more probing critical work of professional journalism? Kids can do more than explainers. I think this would have a number of educational benefits. Moreover, just as scientists doing outreach is sometimes (cynically) seen as serving the scientific community as a form of promotion for their profession, maybe is science journalism is under threat as a profession, maybe doing outreach could help promote youselves? And, just as scientists often say they learn a lot from working with young people, maybe science journalists could learn something too.

You want to reach young audiences? Stop thinking about them as ‘audiences’, and involve them.

Avoiding the magic fact machine

It was Universities Week last week – a campaign to highlight the impact of higher education institutions on UK individuals, communities, culture and businesses.

One of the projects rolled out for the event was the web-based ‘FactShare Generator‘. If you happen to like car-crash science communication, go and have a play. Otherwise, I don’t want to dwell on it. It is suffice to say UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BLOODY MAGIC FACT MACHINES, and that it made me angry enough to write a piece for Comment is Free, where I tried to take the more positive track of celebrating a project I do like: I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here.

UCLA picture of a man made of stone, in a university. It is SYMBOLIC.

I’m a Scientist probably sounds terrible. It’s not. It pitches teenagers’ questions against groups of scientists (amazingly diverse, cheeky, surreal questions too). Importantly, the contestants aren’t the super-star scientists you see on TV. They are everyday workers, and because the questions are not just factual queries, but about the scientists’ lives, the project provides a sense of science on a day-to-day level. Most of all, it’s striking how often scientists reply with “I don’t know”. It’s not in a dismissive way. If anything, it’s said with excitement. Not knowing is a source of inspiration for a lot of scientists.

This point about being able to say “I don’t know” is, I think, really important, and I was pleased to see it pulled out in the comment thread. However, also in the comments Scott Keir posed a challenge:

What I haven’t seen on I’m a Scientist yet (though I will keep looking), are the researchers answering a question and then saying, “and what do you think?” In some ways, that’s a similar model to the magic fact machine – the researchers have the answers. So contestants, if you’re reading this, please try asking what the questioner and other students reading it think too. I’m prepared to bet that sometimes, it’s the students that will have the better answers.

I know a few of contestants took on this challenge (see also this response from one of the mods). Still, it’s a good challenge, and a continual one.

I’d add a smaller challenge of my own: contestants should try to be imaginative in the resources they send students to with links. Or find ways of encouraging students to find resources for themselves. There’s a lot of linking to Wikipedia. When I worked on a science website for schoolkids back in 2001-3, I’d always challenge myself to link to something other than the BBC. I knew that if someone was interested and googled, they’d find and trust the BBC link anyway. As a writer, I wanted to be able to give them something else. Obviously, I link to the BBC if it was a really good page worth sharing, but I always have a good dig first. I now instigate the same personal rule with Wikipedia.

The challenges raised by I’m a Scientist aren’t just for the contestants though. Reading through some of the blogposts written by contestants - Tom Crick, posted yesterday, Paula Salgado and Stephen Curry from last year –  I’m struck by how much work it involves. This is on top of all the other things they have to do as professional scientists. They are all also keen to say quite how much they’ve learnt and how much they feel they’ve contributed. There’s a great comment under Tom’s post from another contestant, saying how much she learns from the other scientists in her zone, and I love the bit in Paula’s piece about how emotionally invested she became in the experience, and why. So, yet again, the question is how can we find (more) ways to make this sort of work part of a scientist’s job, not just an add-on?

Moreover, what other projects can we run that open up universities to outside questions? What other projects might be able replicate the sort of discursive work I’m a Scientist (at its best) provides, but for people other than schoolkids? What other projects might invite the public to learn from universities, and also allow universities to learn from the experience too? Brightclub? Cafe Scientifique? Something a bit more subversive…?

Whether you have an answer, or just another question, do let me know what you think.

Why Don’t You? A review of ‘Making is Connecting’

making is connecting

I’ve mentioned David Gauntlett’s new book, Making is Connecting, a few times recently: on my work blog, my knitting one, and on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories. It’s an interesting book worth talking about. It’s about the social meanings of creativity and 21st century maker cultures, be these makers of blogs, woolly cardigans, cupcakes, podcasts or physics-themed lolcats, and in particular the changing structures of making which surround what is sometimes called ‘social media’. As any seasoned media studies scholar will grump at you, all media is social, but with this thing we call web 2.0 the patterns of sociability are changing (Gauntlett has made a lovely vid on this) in ways which are wrapped up in the history of crafting.

It has, however, taken me a while to actually finish reading the book and post this review. This isn’t because it’s a hard read, or boring. Quite the opposite. For a piece of social sciences, it’s incredibly well written. Still, in a way, it is a book that inspires slow reading, because one of the many reasons why it took me so long to finish (why it takes me so long to finish most books, unless I make myself sit and read them in a go, or even watch a movie or er… finish this sentence) is that I get distracted. I stop consuming whatever other people have made – in this case Gauntlett’s book – and go and produce something for myself. I knitted, I cooked, I wrote, I gave lectures and organised events. Some of this I did myself, some of it collaboratively. Along the way, I also found stuff other people had made to consume and take part in too. And that’s why Making is Connecting might be ‘slow reading’. Because, this process of going off and doing something yourself is a lot of what the book is about.

One of the key frames of the book is a shift from the passivity of the ‘sit back’ model of what might come to be seen as the odd mid to late 20th century era of the television and towards a culture dominated by ideas of making and doing. People who watched British television at a certain point in the late 20th century may remember a show called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead. So does Gauntlett.

I wondered at times whether this shift is over-stated in the book. Or at least that I we should be careful of putting them up against each other in terms of making. I love the passivity of some TV shows because they free me to knit in front of them (just knitting on its own doesn’t catch my attention enough). Or what about TV shows that draw on crafting cultures? (food TV, especially in the USA is fascinating here). Moreover, there are ways in which that big smooth professionally oiled machine of big media acts as a material for 21st century craft. One of the striking, not always appreciated, aspects of 21st century making is how much of it is re-making. Fan fiction is the classic case study of the complexity of such remaking culture. Take, for example, Constance Penley’s book NASA/Trek where she writes about people re-working the stories of Star Trek just as they also rework the various stories surrounding NASA.

A smaller topic, but equally interesting I thought, was that of mess. Gauntlett mentions this first when he is introducing web the notion of web2.0 and mentions a video from Chris Anderson, and then comes back to later when discussing the Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. It reminded me of my friend Felix’s great idea (a few years back now) of ‘messy Tuesdays’. Inspired by the ways in which some knitting and cooking bloggers seemed to be self-consciously styling their domestic lives to look like a glossy lifestyle magazine, Felix wrote up a manifesto (currently offline): ‘You are not your flawless surfaces. You are not your orderly laundry-pile. You are not the seamlessness of your Finished Objects. You are not your risen cakes. You are not your sewn-in ends’. As another blogger, Lara put it, ‘as someone who spent her teenager years wrapped in teenage angst about not being clever enough, pretty enough or thin enough, the idea that my home won’t be beautiful enough, my craft not so well executed or my knitting up to speed has been at times quite tough’. They confidently posted about the less tidied-up bits of their lives, celebrating the beauty and reality of the mess that surrounds us all.

I sometimes think we should bring that back: #messytues has something on a twitter meme about it, no? I also think there’s potential for some research here. John Law is good on this topic, as a post on the ‘serendipity engine’  reminded me recently. Although I’ve just quoted a couple of knit-bloggers, I think this idea of the reality, necessity and even beauty of mess has something to say about the way we tell science stories too (as the reference to Law may signal).

The point that most interested me about this book, however, was the way that Gauntlett, as a professor of media studies, is interested in people making media and mediating making. It’s all very popular culture orientated, with some nods to domestic life. The hand crafting of pharmaceuticals, for example, doesn’t get much of a look in. I wondered if this would have brought something else to the debate.

That’s one of the reasons why I referred to NASA/Trek. There are many other better works on fanfiction (e.g.) but I think Penley’s discussion of something as intrinsically ‘big science’ as the space race says something about the social arrangement of makers in late modern society. There is a danger that by focusing on the ways people make and remake some objects we further ‘black-box’ others. For example, I learnt how to knit from reading knit blogs. I can make a jumper. I can also blog about this on the super clever iPhone I carry around with me. I don’t know how to make an iPhone though, or even spin my own wool to make that jumper from. The latter is largely a matter of choice (I do at least know some blogs that’d teach me to spin and even what plants to grow to make my own dyes from, as well as a few people who have access to sheep for wool, or possibly even a llama). For the former though, I have no clue where to even start teaching myself, even if I did, the manufacture of an iphone is not exactly opensource. Most of the time, I’m ok with that cluelessness, it frees me up to be knowledgeable about other things, but it does also disempower me.

There are key ways in which most of us do not have the means to (media) production – from our inability to understand how to do anything but use (as in use as a consumer) the shiny computers so many of us carry around in our pockets, to more economic or legal issues like the one Martin Robbins recently flagged up on his post about web hosts as the Achilles heel of online journalism.

None of that is necessarily a criticism of the book. We all have to focus somewhere, and Gauntlett does touch on these issues a bit in his final chapter ‘Web 2.0 – not all rosy?’ Still, I was surprised not to see more on the sociologies of work, expertise and technology and finished the book wanting to hear more about anti-social aspects of DIY culture. I also suspect Gauntlett would get an intellectual kick out of the various aesthetics of steampunk maker culture (old post I wrote on an exhibition of such work).

To conclude, I do want to stress that Making is Connecting is a lovely book, not least because of Gauntlett realistically optimistic approach. Though he’ll happily call ‘rubbish!’ (his 10 things wrong with the media ‘effects’ model is justifiably a classic), he doesn’t wear an ability to be ‘critical’ like it’s some sort of pin badge to show membership of the ‘very clever thinkers club’. Academics should be able to say they like things, and I like this book. I’ll end on a positive note, an honest one, and say if you are a maker of any sort, I can wholehearted recommend Making is Connecting. It’ll give you a chance to think about the history and philosophies of crafting cultures. It’ll lift you out of your own maker microculture to help you ponder your wider context. It inspired me to make this post, and others, and to think more about my making. So do read it, even if it does take you a few months to get around to finishing it because you keep putting it down to do something else instead.

Imagining the communities of online science

As a researcher of science writing and science writers, I’m interested in the ideas science bloggers have about the communities they are part of.

Bloggers being a reflexive lot, I have a growing collection of posts which discuss some of the issues involved here. Still, I want to go beyond the limited perspective provided by simply pointing and clicking through the blogs I already read, and see if I can generate something new. I decided to focus on people who blog about something to do with the brain. I choose the brain because it seemed like an area where there is a lot of interest in interdisciplinary work, as well as being one with a fair bit of sometimes contentious popular interest. I thought I might find elements of what might be called ‘bad science blogging’ and outreach work,  as well as researchers talking about their work in quite technical ways. I thought I might see overlaps in communities and cultural identities, and that this would be interesting.

My first main step was a very rough survey. The aim of this was just to increase the perspective; to introduce me to new blogs and bloggers, and get some ideas for how to frame interview questions at later stages of the work. I posted a set of questions a bit before Christmas, and have spent time over the last few months considering the results, including some of the new sides to blogging (both content they generate, and ideas about them one might hold) it has led me to. This is where I am now, and my next step will be to interview a smaller number of bloggers.

Having posted the call openly, I feel some responsibility to report back. Some of the responses were even posted publicly (in the comment thread, or on blogger’s sites). However, others were not only emailed to me, but also marked with as private. Moreover, I don’t want to go into detail about the results of this survey because it really is a rough look at the field. It is designed to help me do rigorous research, rather than be rigorous research in itself. It is not representative of science blogging, or even those who blog on the brain. It didn’t set out to be.

So here’s a compromise: a bit of an overview of what I’ve found which COMES WITH HUGE HEALTH WARNINGS (add your own red flashing lights here).

I emailed several bloggers I knew of in advance to ‘seed’ the project.  It was posted on my blog, and I posted a link to this on twitter. It was re-tweeted, and a few other bloggers linked to it too. I was taking a sort of ‘snowball’ approach, drawing on the connectivity of online communication to help see what I picked up. I was purposely vague with the notion of brain bloggers. I wanted to see who it attracted.

I received 47 responses in total. Some were academics, and there were a few science students who described themselves as scientists in training. Some were probably best described as patient bloggers; with a disease or injury relating to the brain. Some were journalists, some were skeptics and some I can only describe as ‘other’. A few were several of those categories at once. Some wanted to note they weren’t one of those identities; a few stated emphatically that they weren’t scientists and one wanted to stress that he wasn’t a skeptic. Very few had any formal training in science communication or journalism, though several had experience of some sort of professional writing outside of their blog. Very few said they were paid to blog, (this was true of the academics even if they also said they saw it as outreach).

I asked if they felt if they fitted into any particular community, network or genre of science blogging. The response to this seemed rather unsure, with a lot of question marks after answers. Interestingly, some also spoke about the importance of independence from any network too. One said they didn’t have time to read other blogs, which I was personally surprised by, and makes me want to learn more about bloggers blog-reading habits. Those who were on a network would talk about that, others mentioned the theme or subject area of their blog (e.g. ‘neuro’ or ‘genetics’), though many listed more than one. When I asked what this community gave them, the response was mainly ideas, sometimes access of paywalled papers and a way of making or keeping up with friends/ gaining emotional support. Networks seem to be seen to provide extra visibility, as well as technical support.

The reasons for blogging were really diverse. Some by accident. Some for fun and curiosity about the medium. Some because they were frustrated with peer review in academic publications or the (comparable?) limitations of writing for the mainstream media. Some wanted to tip a toe into professional writing, some wanted to promote a particular idea. I think my favourite was the one that said they started as a tribute to Darwin’s 200th birthday (anyone who has fallen down the rabbit hole that is the Darwin Correspondence Project will appreciate this).

The question after this was ‘what keeps you blogging’ – these answers were similar (some said ‘as above’) but they were more likely to stress the impact their blogging had had on others, or feedback they had received and that they learnt from the experience. Other topics that were stressed here were enjoyment, that they kept on finding things to share, and there was a sense of getting into the habit. I really think the notion of a community came out in these answers.

When I asked if they had a sense of size of their audience, what was most interesting was the variety of ways people answered the question. Some quoted web metrics, some said they thought only their friends read it, and clearly felt their readers were just those who left a comment or tweeted about it. Others felt there was probably some unknown audience, but that this was pretty much unknown. Some implied curiosity over this, one said he’d like to do the sort of reader survey Ed Yong does. When I asked about attitude to the commentators, the response was largely positive. A few seemed to boarder on the ‘I tolerate them’ end of things though, and bad comments did come through when I asked about disadvantages.

What’s next? Based on these results as well as my broader reading and research interests, for the next stage, I want to focus on just scientists who blog. I may later talk to those who come from a professional journalist route, and I’m really interested in student bloggers. The patient bloggers were fascinating, but I suspect this is something for someone with more expertise in the sociology of health to do. Obviously, part of the point of why this area is interesting is that we can’t necessarily divide these identities too clearly. Still, for the sake of having perimeters, scientists bloggers seem the most interesting.

Anyway, this is work in progress, so for all the red flashing health warning, as I continue to refine my research queries, I’d be interested to know what people think. Do these results, such as they are, match your own experience and expectations?