2 Comments »Posted on Sunday 31 August 2008 at 5:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

So, the Science Blogging Conference 2008 has been and gone. I managed to get to the Royal Institution, a place I have never been, without getting too lost. It’s a pretty impressive building, and recent renovation has made the interior seem like a cool place to visit.

Breakfast was on offer as the delegates arrived, but I had already eaten so partook in the usual milling about that tends to take place at these sorts of things. Amongst others I spoke to David Bradley from Sciencebase, although I didn’t manage to match the name to the site until I got home. Eventually we were called to the famous Faraday theatre, where lectures have been held since the early nineteenth century.

After an introduction by the Nature Network hosts, the first speaker was Ben Goldacre from Bad Science. As good a speaker as he is a writer, he talked about the concept of “microfame”, and how “everyone is famous for 15 people” (not 15 months, Mark Borkowski), by which he meant that feeling you get when you meet someone whose blog you really enjoy and go “oh wow, you’re so-and-so from so-and-so.com!” He also called for fewer science writers, and more science editors – people to facilitate scientists talking about their own work, in their own words. Amusingly it was at this point he realised, mid-anecdote, that the proceedings were being filmed and so he quickly skipped over whatever it was he was about to say. Hope no one was insulted!

Next up was a panel with three bloggers who blog about what it is like to be a scientist. I was actually surprised how many people at the conference were scientists who blog, rather than those such as myself who blog about science. As such, there wasn’t much in the way of advice that I could take away from the session, but I did agree with the panellists that scientists blogging about themselves is a great way to show the public they aren’t all weirdos who talk in a strange, made-up language to confuse everybody else. They are in fact people, just like you and me – though I won’t deny there weren’t a few “mad scientist” hairstyles around.

After a short coffee pit-stop was the first of the “breakout” sessions, for which you had to choose one of three parallel talks. I went for “There’s a giraffe on my unicycle: Can blogging unlock your creativity?” Let’s be honest, I was mostly there for the title.

The session itself turned out to be more about creativity in general rather than blogging in particular, but there was an amusing exercise in which we were asked to come up a list of things you can’t use a coathanger for. Answers ranged from the obvious (drink it) to the meta (run a creativity workshop). In the end, the point was to teach us to challenge our assumptions – after all, no one said the coathanger was made out of metal, so why couldn’t you make an ice-coathanger, melt it, then drink it?

Pausing for a very tasty lunch (with smoked salmon, no less – thanks Nature!) I then had to pick my second breakout session. This time I chose the slightly less crazily titled “Communicating Primary Research Publicly”, in which I learnt about a concept called Open Notebook Science. Some scientists have taken blogging to the extreme, and put everything they do online. All daily lab reports, even the experiments that went wrong, are uploaded to the internet for all to see.

It seemed to be quite a firey topic, with some of the audience questioning how one could possibly conduct research under such conditions – couldn’t anyone just come along and scoop your results? Jean-Claude Bradley, one of the people leading the discussion and a strong advocate for Open Notebook Science, disagreed. He saw it as a really true form of science, in which everything is documented and open for anyone to dispute or verify. It’s definitely something I’m interested in finding out more about, so look out for future posts on the topic.

The final breakout sessions were “unconference” sessions. These were proposed and voted upon by the delegates, and not part of the pre-planned schedule. I can’t remember what the other two on offer were, but I went along to “Bored of blogging”. Now don’t worry, I’m not actually bored of blogging, however I do find myself less motivated than usual to write on some days. I thought the session would be a good opportunity to find out how others keep on the blogging track.

It was run by a guy named Scott Keir, who began by introducing himself Alcoholics Anonymous style – “Hi, I’m Scott, and I’m bored of blogging”. As it was a much smaller session that the others I had been to, this got much more audience participation, in a similar style. People admitted to having not blogged for two days, two weeks, or even two months! Truly, truly shocking. Nothing huge came out of it, but it was an enjoyable session.

The final panel wrapped up various topics that had come up throughout the course of the day. Open Notebook Science came up again, and the discussion was even more heated. If it had been on a blog it might even have descended into a flame war! I’ll definitely have to look into just how divided scientists are over ONS.

As the conference drew to a close, I decided to pass on the offer of post-conference drinks, and just head home. Truth be told, I was knackered – a long, hot day makes me want to go to sleep! All in all though, it was an enjoyable day and made me look forward even more to starting the course at Imperial (just over a month to go now!) I also realised that Nature Network is definitely the place to be when it comes to science blogging, so I’m going to spend some time checking out their blogs. Roll on Science Blogging Conference 2009!

  1. 2 Comments

  2. It was indeed a long, hot day, but well worth the trip and nice to, like you say, but names to faces. I too skipped on the drinking session, which came as shock to my system. But my family had spent the day at Tussauds and the Science Museum, so I had to meet up with them to find a Leicester Square eatery and head back here to Cambridge. Looking forward to next year’s gig already and hoping they could maybe organise it in Hyde Park so we could enjoy the sunshine and the heat next time round.

    By David Bradley on Sunday 31 August, 2008 at 8:38 pm

  3. Jacob – a nice summary. It was quite a busy day but I find myself now wishing it had been a bit longer! Maybe we’ll get a day and a half next time (assuming there is a next time).

    I agree Nature Network is a good place to be, but it has a particular style of blogging. It’s very friendly and flame-free. There is an emphasis on the social side as well as science. Come along to one of the Nature Network drinks evenings if you can. I think there’ll be another in October.

    @David – maybe the next one should be held in Cambridge?!

    By Frank Norman on Thursday 4 September, 2008 at 5:23 pm

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