Adventures in Ethics and Science

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was recently part of a panel on Digital Science at the NSF IGERT 2010 Project Meeting in Washington, D.C. The meeting itself brought together PIs, trainees, and project coordinators who are involved in a stunning array of interdisciplinary research programs. Since the IGERT program embraces mottos like “get out of the silos” and “think outside the box”, my sense is that the Digital Science panel was meant to offer up some new-ish tools for accomplishing tasks that scientists might want to accomplish.

The panelists included Jean-Claude Bradley, who spoke about his experiences with “Open Notebook Science” (you can see his slides here), Moshe Pritzker, who discussed the Journal of Visualized Experiments and some of the things it can communicate that traditional scientific journals cannot, Chris Impey, who talked about digital teaching tools (including clickers and Second Life) and strategies, and yours truly, talking about some of the ways blogs are being used within the tribe of science.

The first thing I should note is that the time each of us had on the panel was pretty short — a mere ten minutes to present some ideas and examples, followed by a question or two from the audience, and then a more general question and answer period at the end. As you might imagine, each of us could have single-handedly filled an hour, so we had to really stick to the broad strokes rather than wallowing in all the minute details. I had more points to make than fit in my allotted time, so here I’ll sketch what I wanted to convey, even though it was truncated in the actual panel.

I talked about the variety of ways blogging scientists (including scientific trainees) use their blogs: to explain their subject matter to a general audience, to give their students an opportunity to write about science for a general audience (as Tara does at Aetiology), to discuss interesting papers in the scientific literature (as the ResearchBlogging crowd does), to counter misinformation and misunderstandings in the popular press (like in Miriam’s post about garbage-patch coverage), to discuss scientific knowledge that bears on policy decisions, to discuss different aspects of life as a member of the tribe of science (in academia, industry, or other work situations, at all different career stages), and to ask for or offer mentoring.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it was still long enough that I had to leave about half of it out of my ten minutes.

What does all this science blogging accomplish? Some people are most excited about the way it complements traditional science journalism within the mainstream media (and goodness knows I have immense respect for a bunch of science journalists and science writers who also blog — too many to list or link here). However, the big contribution that I feel science blogging makes to the tribe of science is in providing a window into the patterns of scientific lives as scientists are actually living them — a window which was not available back in the last millennium when I was training to be a scientist.

I think having access to accounts of what it’s like to be a scientist — in various academic settings or job situations, in various career stages, in various geographical locations, and for people from various backgrounds — is a very big deal for people who are students of science trying to wrap their heads around what it would be like to become a scientist. Learning how to be a scientist is a much different undertaking than just learning what’s in the textbook and understanding it well enough for problem sets and exams. And, since the experience of what it’s like to become a scientist, or to be a scientist, is not easily universalized, the variety of voices that the science-y blogosphere offers conveys at least some of the range of experiences different members of the tribe of science have had.

But blogs don’t just let lots of people tell their stories. The conversational nature of blogs and commenting upon blogs can give rise to virtual communities. Among other things, the conversations on blogs can help people find mentoring even in the absence of useful mentors in their three-dimensional environment, and they can make the experience of being a scientist — especially a scientist from an underrepresented group — seem less isolating. (There is some nice recent research on this drawing on surveys of writers and readers of geoscience blogs, some details of which are discussed here.)

I also suspect that the kinds of conversations that get started in the science-y blogosphere may be encouraging the tribe of science, or at least particular segments of that tribe, to speak with each other more candidly about matters of responsible conduct of research, structural issues around the funding of scientific research, ways to improve communication with the public (e.g., about contentious issues like animal research), and such. While some of this candid “speech” is in the forms of blog posts or blog comments, some of the conversations sparked by the blogs are happening face to face.

I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing. Certainly the process of building a reliable body of scientific knowledge depends on scientist-to-scientist communication about the research being undertaken, the observations of the world being collected. But more communication about the process of making scientific knowledge — and about better practices for making new scientists — could also be helpful. Otherwise, a whole lot of scientists toil in solitude and spend more time than they might otherwise reinventing a multitude of wheels (many of which are bound to be suboptimal).

The question and answer period after the four individual presentations in our panel was … let’s go with “revealing”. One of the things it revealed was what I suppose should have been a perfectly predictable generational divide about the utility of the digital tools the four of us discussed, and about the wisdom of using them.

For example, Moshe fielded questions (from PIs) about why someone would choose to publish in JoVE rather than a recognized high impact science GlamourMag. Jean-Claude was presented with a spirited defense (by PIs) of the peer review system and traditional closed-notebook practices. Chris was asked (by PIs) whether his undeniably cool technological approaches to engaging students in the classroom weren’t exactly the kind of non-research activity that could derail a promising researcher’s career if he or she wasn’t careful (given that teaching is not usually a well-rewarded activity in institutions with a research focus).

I was asked (by a trainee) a question about how to get a blogging effort to really “take”. I think I responded with a question about what the trainee’s goal was in blogging, noting that while blogging can be a good mechanism for being reflective about one’s work and personal development, serious venting might be safer to do in a bound notebook that one does not publish to everyone in the world with an internet connection. A bit later, a PI noted that the last thing one would want a trainee to do is devote hours and hours to writing a blog. To this, I remarked that long before there were blogs, trainees had plenty of other ways to waste time. (Tetris comes to mind.) Moreover, I ventured that trainees were perhaps entitled to some time in their day that was not programmed by their faculty mentors. This drew spontaneous applause from what appeared to be the younger people in the audience.

There seemed to be some folks in the audience interested in the potential of blogging for public outreach (at least to the extent that it could give the scientist blogging practice writing about matters scientific in forms other than Journal Paper or Grant Proposal). This led to the inevitable question about whether blogging is something that trainees or PIs ought to do as part of their training or jobs. Here, I noted my own sense of the what would be good and what would be problematic in making blogging part of the scientist’s job description rather than something a scientist does for his or her own satisfaction (as well as noting that my own blogging was evaluated for my tenure dossier).

In any case, it seems to me that there should be room in a scientific life for activities that are neither compulsory nor smacked down.

And yet, it struck me, on the basis of the response to our panel and later panels, that both PIs and trainees were on high alert for activities that might result in a smack down. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that folks were thinking through potential consequences, and that PIs were so concerned for the welfare of their trainees. On the other hand, though, it felt almost as if PIs wanted to swathe their trainees in bubble-wrap to protect them from the big bad world of science … but not so much to entertain the possibility that this big bad world of science might be changing, or that they could play a role in changing it, for the better.

More about that in my next IGERT post.

Comments

  1. #1 Ihearthla
    June 25, 2010

    I can really relate to this post. I am young MS canidate, moving onto a PhD program. Blogs such as this create a community that aren’t present on some campuses (such as mine). One of my favorite aspects of this community is that an aspiring scientist may pick and choose which sites they most relate to, rather than being stuck within a department which may or may not be supportive. So I’d just like to say thanks, to you, Dr. Isis, PalMD, and Drug Monkey, and all the rest, for the for being advocates and mentors for us. Your forums create a space where we can discuss and science and relate to the ups and downs in the lives of those which pursue it.

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