Science blogging in New Zealand

Science communication, specifically science blogging, is the topic of an international conference in London later this month*. I wonder how many New Zealanders will attend. I hope some do as science communication is a real problem in New Zealand.

There is some great science being done here. Unfortunately we rarely hear about it – and then only selected bits and pieces. I think that is sad. Especially as there are widespread criticism in our community of the scientific enterprise. Creationism/intelligence design ideas are only one aspect of this. There are also irrational and anti-scientific ideas behind much of the alternative health fads and products. And then there are the faith healers and spiritualists.

What we need is more scientific literacy. More exposure of scientific ideas and discoveries to the general population. And more enthusiasm about science. I have often thought a TV soap opera, similar to Coronation Street or Shortland Street but based on a scientific research institute would help.

But here’s an idea – what about science blogging. I mean regular blogs by working scientists talking about their research and that of their colleagues. And discussing issues of the day from a scientific perspective.  After all, today many people treat the internet as a news source and a magazine. They are constantly perusing web sites and blogs with content they are interested in.

US science blogging

Science blogging seems to be relatively popular in the USA. Many people are familiar with Pharyngula, the blog of evolutionary biologist PZ Myers. This is rated as the most popular science blog on the internet and contains a lot of useful scientific content as well as polemical articles defending science.

There are many more science blogs and I can give only a few examples here:

A former astronomer Phil Plait writes for Bad Astronomy and biochemist Michael White for the  adaptivecomplexity’s blog. Steven Novella, an academic neurologist, has the NeuroLogica Blog. Novella also hosts the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. Evolutionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has the blogs Rationally Speaking and Plato’s Footnote.

Then there are  group blogs. For example, several astronomers and physicists (Daniel Holz, JoAnne Hewett, John Conway, Julianne Dalcanton, Mark Trodden, Risa Wechsler and Sean Carroll) contribute to the Cosmic Variance Blog.

And there are science blogging communities such as ScienceBlogs – the largest online community dedicated to science with over 90 blogs including scientists, journalists and educators. Other communities are Discover Blogs, Nature Network Blogs, ScientificBlogging.com and Scientific American Community Blogs.

And, of course, these are only the tip of the iceberg.

What about New Zealand.

There are very few science blogs in New Zealand. We do have the MoRST-funded Science Media Centre operated by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Otago university also has the Centre for Science Communication (see Making science sexy). However, these are basically a source of press releases – not venues for direct communication by scientists.

There are the blogs Open Mind and Hot Topic, devoted to climate change, and Kevin Hicks’ New Zealand science Talk. But the one that interests me is BioBlog set up by Alison Campbell. BioBlog is specifically aimed at high school science teachers. The novel feature of this blog is that it is hosted on the University of Waikato’s coporate website –  it has the blessing of her employer!

I think that is real progress

Corporate fears

I say this because my experience working for a Crown Research Institute was that the corporate bureaucracy, including that part responsible with IT and communication, really had no idea about communicating science via the internet. They also seemed to be paranoid about the possibility of any scientist using the internet for communicating science – especially if they didn’t control it.

I guess that is the usual corporate distrust of employees. But it always stuck me as illogical that scientists were encouraged to communicate their science via newspaper articles, industry conferences and newsletters but not via the internet and not on the company’s website! Often we would write articles that were published on another company’s website – but not on our own. When I put up an example website to indicate how we could use the internet I was ordered to take it down.

Yet, blogs based on corporate websites but under the personal control and responsibility of the scientist are an ideal way to publicise the institutes work – and to do so with an enthusiasm which the corporate bureaucrat cannot communicate. I think group and departmental organisation of research and academic teaching provides a natural structure for the communication of research findings and discussion of science related issues. It also provides a structure for organising scientists blogs hosted by corporate websites.

Alternatively, wouldn’t it be good if universities and research institutes allowed, or even encouraged, scientists to establish blogs hosted outside the corporate structure. This should accommodate the corporate fear of responsibility for anything considered controversial.

I think there are real opportunities for science bloggin in New Zealand. Attitudes of coprorate beauracracy are a hurdle. BioBlog shows this can be overcome – at least in the universities. I think the only other hurdles are really in the attitudes of the scientists themselves.

*Go here for a list of science bloggers attending the London conference.

See also:
What is a science blog?
The Open Laboratory: The Best science Writing on Blogs
How to blog, get tenure and prosper: Starting the blog

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14 responses to “Science blogging in New Zealand

  1. Thank you for them kind words, Ken!

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  2. Hi Ken, part of our remit at the Science Media Centre is to help scientists who want to engage in new media, get into blogging etc. You’re right, there are very few science bloggers here, but my talks with editors in the few weeks the centre has been going suggests there is a hunger for guest blogs and regular slots for the websites of the major media organisations. I’d also like to see a collection of science blogs clustered together along the Publicaddress.net model, a place where a stable of scientists who are able to post regularly, give informed opinion and appeal to a general audience. The technology is easy – and we can help there – a nice network of blogs could be set up on WordPress for little cost – we need to find hte scientists that are willing to put themselves out there. I was in Sweden recently at the PCST conference on science communication and met numerous science bloggers. These people have a strong readership and there are real benefits to blogging, especially for early career scientists who want to get their name out there. Any scientist interested in getting into blogging is welcome to give us a call or email(04 499 5476 smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz). We’ll also be kicking off the official SMC blog shortly, which will look at the coverage of science in the NZ media. In the meantime, I’m blogging on science and tech at my own site http://www.petergriffin.co.nz.

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  3. Hi Ken, thanks for the mention. In the interests of accuracy, I would point out that Open Mind isn’t an NZ blog – Tamino’s based in the US, unless I’m very much mistaken.

    I’d also hesitate to describe Hot Topic as a science blog, not least because I hesitate to describe myself as a scientist. I blog about climate science, but I’m doing it as a (with luck) scientifically literate writer who wants to communicate what’s going on, rather than as a working scientist blogging about my speciality. A bit more like Andy Revkin at the New York Times with his Dot Earth blog, though without the salary or traffic… 😉

    It would be great if the CRI’s accepted that encouraging and supporting their staff to blog about their work was an important part of their communication and outreach commitment. Perhaps the SMC could use its clout there?

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  4. Peter: I’ll be contacting you (using my real name!) for other reasons anyway, but I might put up a blog at some stage. Been muttering about it for a while…

    Although I need to do a survey of what’s out there first, my instinct run against WordPress as it has a number of limitations I’m not keen on from a user’s perspective: no preview, a silly refresh issue, etc. I like its simple style, though. If I get ambitious, and my ISP doesn’t try sock a huge fee at me, I might try host something off my consultancy’s domain.

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  5. Heraclides – on the preview issue (which wordpress.com has on their list to look at)- I have come across Text Formatting Toolbar – a Firefox add-on. This could overcome problems of people trying to add tags.

    I get the impression that running WordPress on your own ISP is the best way to go for control.

    I hope that anything the Science Media Center sets up will not be too restrictive in terms of individual control. However, most people coming in to blogging may not want to do the learning required for their own control.

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  6. most people coming in to blogging may not want to do the learning required for their own control.

    Possibly. But one of the nice things about blogging is the ability to control things – OK, I don’t have a lot of say in what mine looks like! – in the sense of what you choose to write about, how you structure it, illustrate it, that sort of thing. Not to mention the decision of what defines/describes your target audience, because that has a huge impact on both what you choose to write about & how you write it. Or maybe I’m just a control freak!

    On the Science Media Centre: I would hope they’d end up being something like Scienceblogs ie provide the ‘space’ & the look but pretty much allow the bloggers to do things their own way. It would be a real pity if the individual voices were lost through pressure to conform to some particular mould. You’d lose a lot of the sense of excitement about science if you went too far down that route.

    On the blogging conference – I looked at that when it was first mooted & thought, want!!! But the timing is bad for me; I’m doing a public lecture on Darwin over in Tauranga on Sept 3 & that’s something I definitely don’t want to deliver in a jet-lagged state 🙂

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  7. Double rats! I thought I had cracked the tags this time! That first sentence is a quote from Ken…

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  8. Fixed the tag (missing a /). That’s where the text formatting toolbar is so handy!

    My experience with CRIs is that they would impose a very restrictive mould – if they allowed it at all. And their communications bureaucrats would fight very hard to retain their own control. I agree that the author should retain as much control as possible – even the immediate to statistics. It is important for the author to feel enthusiasm for what they are doing, to be able to convey that enthusiasm to readers, and to get as much feedback as possible.

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  9. Alison, I’m definitely thinking along the Scienceblogs line – the Science Media Centre just helps facilitate setting it up and keeps an eye on the infrastructure – each scientist has total control and responsibility for maintaining their blog. I’ll let Ken know when we’ve got more of a plan mapped out but ideally we’d set up something like the WordPress MU (multiple user) engine so numerous people can log into the same system to write and edit posts, a bit like Publicaddress…

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  10. Coming back to this late (hectic day…), so I’ll try gather my replies into one longish post.

    re: Attending the London event, I’d love to be able to travel to meetings, but my budget doesn’t stretch that far!! I imagine most people would say something similar regards budgets… With that in mind, I imagine Peter and others’ trip were funded–?

    I think one of the bigger hurdles getting working scientists on board may simply be time, at least during work hours.

    As an aside, I might appear to have lots of free time from my frequent posts, but its an illusion stemming from a work approach that uses micro-breaks. During my mini-breaks I write anonymous inanities that no-one asked for 🙂

    Another hurdle for getting working scientists on board might be a sense of “why”. Many, if not most, working scientists already wear several caps and wearing yet another might strike them as one too many (or perhaps yet another on several too many already).

    Ken: I think that one issue with the CRIs is that, nominally at least, they’re supposed to run themselves like a business and so they need their “official” business “voice” to be clear and under control without a dozen people saying different things. There is also the issue of IP security: (accidental) IP leaks are a real problem for businesses. Just my hurried guesses from having worked with a number of them.

    Peter:

    I like the general idea of the approach taken with ScienceBlogs: a common core and default style (but which I suspect you can tweak if you want to), yet individual authors are very much in control of their own “patch” and stand on their own as it were. (I was actually considering asking if I could join their lot, but if there is a local effort, I’d rather that.)

    I, for one, am quite happy to fiddle around with settings and whatnot. Knowing me I’d prefer something that I can dig into the CSS/etc and style as suits will suit me.

    I like the idea of using one hosted elsewhere: if nothing else there are no hosting issues or costs for me to deal with! But because I like to fiddle with the “code”, I’d want that too (yes, the kitchen sink and all the whitewear, too…)

    Ken:

    I like the idea of a daily blog. It might show up the mundanity of day-to-day science, which could be a mixed blessing… On one hand it’d show up the CSI/Bones/etc “instant science” for the silliness it is; on the other hand it could potentially be rather boring, at least if not in the hand of someone good at writing.

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  11. I can appreciate (although I don’t understand) IP security problems, Heraclides, and understand why IT people may get paranoid about this. Still, Waikato University seems to be OK with this issue as shown by Alison’s blog. There must be ways of handling this.

    The business model for CRIs is a real problem. (Perhaps universities are less prone to this but I think they are also succumbing.) Sometimes (more often than most of us imagine) bureaucrats will actually suppress science (to protect intellectual property or avoid legal action). My group, and myself personally, were twice ordered by our CEO not to publish our findings on a particular material because of threatened legal action by a company marketing the material. Withholding permission (for a period) to publish findings over IP issues was a common experience.

    But this can get really stupid. I and a colleague were ordered (by a corporate bureaucrat responsible for communication)to take down an (external) website describing our work in a popular style. At the same time I was given the job of organising communication of our group’s work (using articles written by he scientists doing the work) via newspaper, magazine and the newsletters and websites of external organisations. (mabe the fact that this earned us some money was important).

    I think the scienceblogs or science media blogs approach of Peter Griffiths is by far the best way to go. But an issue Peter will have to confront is corporate suspicion and corporate fear of losing control. If corporate blessing can be achieved this will go a long way to make the approach successful and popular. (In my experience very few scientists are prepared to challenge corporate attitudes – they risk their careers and MoRST funding by doing so).

    Once such blessing is achieved there are other problems – attitudes of colleagues (the sort confronted by people like Sagan who have popularised science) and issues related to ambition, promotion, etc. These can be minimised by group decisions, operating group blogs., etc. But I think individual control even within group blogs is essential to successful blogs.

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  12. Mary Parsons

    I don’t know if you’ve come across this story of what is happening in the pages of the Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association: Chiropractors resort to legal intimidation?

    Dr Ben Goldacre has written some strong words on the issue: Silence Dissent!

    Everyone seems lost in admiration of the robust response that Professor Frank Frizelle gave in the face of legal intimidation.

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  13. Hi Ken

    There’s an interesting blog here on the London science blogger conference: http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2008/08/current-immaturity-of-science-blogging.html – I found it quite thought-provoking.

    🙂

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  14. @ alison:

    Thanks, Alison.
    The only other result from this conference I have come across so far was a podcast of the pubcrawl!

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