Terra Sigillata

There’s a great interview up at the website of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s BT Catalyst with Dr Chris Brodie, associate editor of American Scientist magazine, a publication of the Sigma Xi scientific research society. Chris recently helped to organize a new organization called Science Communicators of North Carolina (SCONC) and speaks with terrific clarity on the changing world for scientists wishing to be involved in public discourse:

In the culture of academic science, the first priority is to secure grants, followed by publishing scientific papers, teaching, administration and, last, outreach. Institutions have not placed much value in the ability to talk in plain language about science. Reaching out to school kids or local neighbors doesn’t count in the tenure discussion, it doesn’t keep the lights on in the lab, and it garners scant acclaim within the scientific community.

As you say, this may be changing, mostly because of pressure from the people who write the checks. Recently, the National Science Foundation has said that grant applicants must describe the “broader impact” of their research. However, there aren’t good blueprints for how to “broaden the impact” of one’s research and the resources to develop such things are thin.

For the most part, each investigator is left to forge his or her own connections with the people who do this type of outreach for a living–teachers, public-information officers, journalists and the people who run science museums. They are usually good resources. And these efforts tend to pay off for the scientists–the communication skills that get polished in a high school classroom or in writing a local Op-Ed column improve their grants and papers.

Chris also has some prescient comments on the value of science blogging as well as a plug for the 2008 NC Science Blogging Conference:

Scientist blogs have indeed made it easier for people ‘out there’ to get a glimpse of the everyday workings of scientists. They certainly speed the spread of information. But I don’t think that blogs can be considered authoritative sources. They’re spontaneous expressions, snapshots. Data that get posted on a blog haven’t gone through the process of peer review, so you’ve got to take them with a grain of salt.

The real strength of blogs, I think, is their ability to collect many threads of information and weave them into a coherent pattern. In this respect, blogs are a great source for journalists who want to catch wind of new story ideas.

As it turns out, North Carolina is a hotspot of discussion about this topic, and the second annual North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, which will take place in Research Triangle Park in January 2008, has already attracted more than a hundred participants [161 as of today]. A quarter of them are flying in, either from other parts of the United States or from other countries.

No surprise, of course, that I diverge from Chris’ description of science blogs as lacking authority, but that perception is indeed widespread. Yet, many science bloggers are the same federally funded scientists that serve on peer-review panels for journals and granting agencies. Moreover, Dave Munger’s BPR3.org movement is improving the visibility of scientists who blog about peer-reviewed research. In fact, Dave has a great post here on the issue of improving the reputation of science blogs.

Anyway, I look forward to discussing these issues with Chris in January as he is registered for the Science Blogging Conference.

Read the complete interview by Boris Hartl of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBC).

Technorati tag: scienceblogging.com