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
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.