A Blog Around The Clock

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.

Today, I asked Cameron Neylon from the Science in the open blog to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?

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My background is in protein chemistry and biochemistry. Broadly speaking what I do is take proteins and use chemical and genetic approaches to change their sequence or modify their characteristics and then use a range of techniques to see what has happened.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

The kid in the toyshop? Rich and famous? Actually no real idea and I’m not sure that it matters that much. The conclusion I’ve come to is that what I want to do is make some sort of difference by applying what I can do well and what I know in whatever the best place is. My background and knowledge is in the biological sciences so that seems a good start but the question is how to make the biggest difference. Over the years this has meant that I have moved from pure science to methods development to working in positions that support other people doing science to thinking about how to make the whole process of science and research work more effectively. To make a big difference doing the straight science you have to do the right thing at the right time – to affect a lot of people it has to be really earth shattering. But as what you do relates to more researchers or more people smaller differences can have bigger effects. If I could do something that improved the efficiency of all research by 0.001% that would be a huge contribution.

So when I grow up I want to be someone who made a difference.

What is your Real Life job?

I’m a senior scientist responsible for biological sciences at the ISIS Neutron Scattering Facility, which is run by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. We provide and large scale facilities for the UK research community. Neutron scattering has traditionally been used mainly in the chemical and physical sciences (particularly in areas of polymer and magnetic structure and magnetic and structural dynamics) but has a lot of potential in solving particular types of structural problems in the biological sciences. My job is an interesting combination of directly supporting users who visit to exploit our facilities, methods development to expand the range of problems we have the expertise to tackle, and public relations and promotion of neutrons to the bioscience community.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

The ability to have an ongoing and distributed conversation with smart people regardless of where they are. I believe strongly that we can use the web to find efficiency gains of much more than 0.001% in how we do research by finding the right people to solve the right problems, by distributing the load across geographically separated groups and working more collaboratively. On top of this I find the potential to explain more effectively what science is and what it can and can’t do to the wider community by directly involving them in the research process really exciting. While 2009 will rank as one of the most depressing years on record for public engagement with and understanding of science the potential to do a lot better – and to expand the kind of science we can do at the same time – is there for the taking.

When I look back at the last couple of years the amount of change in both the consumer web and the tools that are being specifically developed for researchers is massive. We’ve been through a big development of social networking sites for scientists which I personally believe haven’t been very successful, mainly losing out the mainstream equivalents, but we’re now seeing a second round of efforts that are learning from some of those mistakes and will be very interesting to watch. I still think there isn’t enough focus on actually solving problems that the majority of researchers know that they actually have – there is still too much building of things that would be cool if people used them, but not giving those people a reason to use them. But I think 2010 will be a very interesting year with lots of new technologies maturing and coming online.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

Blogging and Friendfeed in particular are a crucial aspect of the work I do looking at online tools for researchers. That is where the community is and where the most up to the minute conversations are happening with the newest ideas. Twitter is important because so many people are on it, a critical demonstration that its often the community, and not the tool which is important. Tools like Slideshare and Wikis, GoogleDocs and other collaborative services are also important to this work because they really underpin the distributed collaborative approach we are trying to develop and exploit. I think Google Wave will gradually become an important part of this ecosystem over the next 12-18 months as the clients and servers bed down and the hype and backlash cycle dies down enough for people to figure out what tasks it is good for.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

I wrote up how I came to get involved with the online blogging community a while back – http://blog.openwetware.org/scienceintheopen/2008/08/22/how-i-got-into-open-science—a-tale-of-opportunism-and-serendipity/. In terms of the blogs on my blog roll there are many that will be familiar (Deepak Singh’s BBGM, Jean-Claude Bradley’s Usefulchem, John Wilbanks’ Common Knowledge, Neil Saunders’ What you’re doing is rather desperate). I keep an eye on Richard Grant (The Scientist), Jenny Rohn, and Martin Fenner at Nature Network. Some other blogs that may not be as familiar to the regular sciblogger community but are well worth the effort are Greg Wilson’s The Third Bit, Mike Ellis’ Electronic Museum, PT Sefton’s blog and Nico Adams’ Staudinger’s Semantic Molecules.

Blogs that I tracked down and got into my feed reader after last year included Christina’s LIS Rant (now at SciBlogs) and Katherine Haxton’s Endless Possibilities, as well as a wider selection of the more general science blogs, that are you know…actually about science rather than somewhat meta stuff that I do.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

What really struck me was both the diversity and the quality of presentations, discussions, and writing. Mostly it pushed me to up my game, which may be one of the reasons I’m posting less…

It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

Absolutely, I will be there…ah that would be like, this January…in about two weeks…woops!

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See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.