(Warning, scattershot blogging echo-chamber post follows.)
Partially because the event was mostly attended by science bloggers themselves, there was a bit of a preaching-to-the-converted sense to the proceedings. (I tried to engage in some good-natured tweaking, pointing out that probably the greatest influence of [supposedly] science blogging has been in absurdly dragged-out climategate saga, but I couldn’t get a rise out of the audience.) But it was heartening to see just how mainstream science blogging has become.
“Only” five years ago (scare-quotes denoting an eternity of internet-time), the academic-blogosphere chattered on about an anonymous article in the Chronicle of Higher Education which contended that bloggers were essentially unsuitable to be hired as faculty members, and a couple of years after that several of my colleagues felt the need to seriously restrict their blogging while searching for permanent positions. I was heartened to see that the question of whether blogging could actually hurt someone’s career seems to be less worrying. Although Petra Boynton said that one of her previous departments were less than enthusiastic about it, most of the panelists have found that, with an increased in impact and communication in general, blogging has taken its position as an effective way to engage with the public.
One of the more novel (to me) things going on at this meeting was the Twitter backchannel: the organizers projected a running stream of tweets marked with the #talkfest tag. It was a decent mix of jokes and apposite comments, especially including erstwhile MP Dr Evan Harris’ provocative comments about whether scientists should be forced to do public engagement at all. It’s certainly good that blogging and communication don’t hurt your career — but should they be requirements for scientific advancement? Not all scientists’ talents lie in that direction, and we shouldn’t expect them to. There was also a twitter discussion of the gender makeup of the panel, which was dishearteningly 1/6 female despite an audience of at least 50% women.
When science blogging started out as its own sub-genre in the middle of the decade, no one was quite sure what it would be for. Would it be used within science as an online lab notebook, or as a substitute or adjunct to papers? That doesn’t seem to have panned out — even in the post-’net open world, the structure of science encourages secrecy, at least until the work can be packaged into what are still more or less old-fashioned papers in what are still more or less old-fashioned journals (albeit with the important twist of pre-publication posting on the arXiv in many fields). Within collaborations, however, wikis, rather than blogs, have become ubiquitous as an easy way to communicate amongst scientists who are already expert — the easy ability to add small chunks of information is exactly what is needed. (Within the Planck Satellite collaboration, we actually use a wiki as a sort of blog — we keep a reverse-chronological list of “posts” discussing our latest results.)
Instead, blogs seem to be used almost exclusively as a window into the life, methods and results of scientists, directed at a knowledgeable but lay public. Indeed, it was suggested at the talkfest that someone could make a very useful living textbook from the scattered blog posts on a given subject. I’m not so sure — one of the advantages of a proper textbook is a single voice and, more prosaically, a single notation starting from scratch— but it’s probably worth trying if someone’s got the wherewithal to do the bit-work involved.
It was especially nice to meet several of my fellow Imperial College bloggers, including biophysicist Stephen Curry (whose own post on the Talkfest also has a list of other reactions to it), whom I was somewhat embarrassed to discover actually works in the same building as I do. As always at these sorts of events, much of the amusement was during the inevitable pub visit afterwards and especially the pre-panel milling about — thanks to the organizers for the excellent combination of cupcakes and beer.