Reflections from ScienceOnline 2010

By Chris Mooney | January 18, 2010 10:52 am

I was thrilled to attend this fast-growing conference and get to see great peeps like Sheril K, Darlene Cavalier, Carl Zimmer, Tom Levenson, Isis, SciCurious, Jennifer Ouellette, and many, many more.

I didn’t always attend the panels (and only spoke on one, last minute) but I did have some reflections:

1. Science and Entertainment: Beyond Blogging – Tamara Krinsky and Jennifer Ouellette: Hollywood getting into science = definitely cool. But will Hollywood’s ace marketers ever see a real need to court science bloggers to get the word out about films, given the relatively small size of our audiences and the vastness of their ad budgets? Not clear to me how much *we* matter, at least so far.

2. Trust and Critical Thinking – Stephanie Zvan, PZ Myers, Desiree Schell, Greg Laden, Kirsten Sanford. Yes, science on the web is a total mess. But trying to “certify” good/accurate science bloggers, vs. bad/biased ones, is an idea that poses more problems than solutions. And anyway, bloggers aren’t the gold standard of scientific accuracy–scientific societies, the NAS, the IPCC, etc, are. Science bloggers should raise the profile of these organizations, and prop up the sense of their credibility, rather than slapping quality labels on various science blogs.

3. Broader Impact Done Right – Karen James, Kevin Zelnio, Miriam Goldstein, Jeff Ives and Beth Beck. It is exciting to learn how some recipients of federal research grants have built websites that have been effective at public outreach and thus at fulfilling the “broader impacts” stipulation of the grant. However, I seriously doubt that most grant recipients are innovating in these ways. Throwing up a website is not, generally, a good way of publicizing research, unless you really know what you’re doing, and plan to carefully measure your traffic and influence. More generally, why on earth do we have vast scores of different grant recipients all called upon to publicize their individual research projects separately? Why isn’t there some joining of forces, and some decisionmaking about what science really needs highlighting before the public, and which scientific teams are best equipped to do so?

Those are my semi-random opinions from ScienceOnline 2010. I’m so glad that I attended, and hope to do so again next year!


Comments (8)

  1. Excellent points Chris!

    I for one am glad to help with point #2- as Chair of my (local) Southern California American Chemical Society (SoCal ACS or SCALACS) section- the ACS being the world’s largest scientific organization- my main goal is to promote scientific literacy at all levels. I am so impressed that it is not actually scientists who are leading the charge in scientific literacy! We scientists need to step up and and partner with those who recognize what’s good and right with science. Unfortunately, some socially important science has been highjacked by unethical people. I pledge to do my best to bring to light this problem to my fellow chemists and as many other scientist colleagues as possible. Thank you for leading the way in this imperatively important issue!

  2. Good to see you, Chris! We’ll hang out more next time. Excellent point on #2, even if you have experts deem some blogs good or bad, others are going to call those experts into question (for better or worse). But is there a way to prove credibility on the internet other than just taking a long time to build up a reliable brand?

  3. Good to see you at the conference.

    I have very mixed feelings about the idea of “certifying” blogs. However, there are two reasons to do so: 1) it will help in our efforts to develop the right message and to control the results of people’s internet “reserch” and 2) it is a form of self-policing that one could argue we are not doing enough of.

    This does not obviate the potential problems it creates, and it may well be that those problems outweigh the benefits. I simply don’t know much.

    While I agree that bloggers should be promoting the excellent institutional structures you mention, it simply is true that a certain number, and it is a growing number, of people do pay attention to blogs. Some of this number may be people who are somewhat distrustful of the mainstream institutions.

  4. Lovely to see you again, Chris, and to finally meet Sheril! And interesting points re: Broader Impacts. We entirely agree (and I’m pretty sure we said this in the session) that just throwing up a website is an ineffective way of publicizing research. I love the idea of some kind of centralized Broader Impacts clearinghouse – but who will decide what gets highlighted, and who will do all the work of putting it together? A governmental agency like the NSF? Some kind of academic center?

  5. It was a good meeting and a great pleasure to reconnect with you, Chris (odd, given our offices for the year are maybe three hundred yards apart, but there it is.

    Conversations to be continued in 02139, but for now, I agree w. all of your observations. More generally the “educate” the public model in frequent but not universal play at the conference makes some assumptions not in evidence, IMHO.

    As noted, further exchange needed, eh?

  6. It was nice to see you in the audience Chris. What I think was one the most important point of the Broader Impacts session was the need for a multilayered approach to outreach. we can’t apply a one size fits all approach. I think that is why Karen and I’s approach to Darwin and the Adventure was very successful in South America. We had print media interviews in Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Chile. Made the evening news in one station and an entire half hour news special at another station in brazil. Plus blogging and tweeting. There will also be more scientific reports/papers coming out of it to reach that crowd. There is always more we could have done or tried to do. But that was the intent of the session, to get a brainstorm of what needs to be done. But we clearly need some metrics to measure the effectiveness of different strategies. This will require much sleuthing in other areas of the scienceverse. Cheers!

  7. Marion Delgado

    re sci and entertainment. The thing alan alda is doing and talking about sounds more promising than most of what they’re talking about. I sent Sheril a transcript.

  8. Marion – Can you send me the transcript as well? Would love to see what you’re talking about. Find me at Thx.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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