We were live on national TV!

After we got off Redonda (and had had a day to scrub up and do some laundry) Geoff and I were asked to give a live TV interview for Antigua and Barbuda Today! The Redonda Restoration Program (like them on FB if you can!) and a Fulbright Fellow named Andrew Maurer working in Antigua this year on Sea Turtle conservation have been doing a terrific job trying to get word out about the restoration efforts around the country. To help, I agreed to give a talk about my research on Redonda.

As I was hurriedly putting together the talk in the couple of days after we returned from Redonda, it was a surprise when Andrew asked if I’d be interested in doing a live TV interview with Antigua and Barbuda today. I was nervous. Really nervous. I’d never done TV before and live on camera means there’s no room for asking for a do-over. Geoff gave me some sage advice though, something along the lines of: Well, you’re going to say yes eventually because it’s a great opportunity even though it’s terrifying. You might as well just say yes instead of worrying about it… but I’m glad it’s not me.

So I said yes. And then I asked the producers if Geoff could come on too – we’d do a scientist/conservation writer one-two punch. Take that buddy! He said yes after I parroted his advice back to him.

We did a practice interview with Claire doing her best Katie Couric and we wrote up a few questions for Antigua and Barbuda Today to use to prep their host. Claire tried to stump us with questions like “Why is Redonda unique?” and hard-hitting follow-ups like “So what do lizards eat?” In reality, the practice session with Claire made us realize just how fun it is to talk about Redonda, the plants and animals, and the incredible efforts going into transforming it. Come Monday morning we were feeling relaxed and excited to get a chance to talk to a TV audience.

We arrived at the TV station early in the morning. It’s election season in Antigua and Barbuda right now so before (and after) us was a politician stumping for his district. Good news because that means we might get some more eyeballs tuning in. At about 7:40 they ushered to us sitting in the green room (which wasn’t green at all) to follow the stage manager into the studio. I’ll admit, at this point anxiety spiked again just a little bit.

We tip-toed into the studio as an interview was finishing and were given two microphones to snake up under our shirts. I couldn’t quite figure out where to put mine, first it was too high, then too low. Luckily the fellow doling them out was a pro and was able to sign to me the right position. Then, all of a sudden, it was a commercial break and we were quickly ushered onto the couch where our host was waiting.

He immediately made us feel right at home but it was clear he had no idea who we were or why we were there. His cheat sheet was just a list of names for the schedule of the day (none of our pre-baked questions had made it) so we quickly filled him in that we were talking about Redonda. Luckily, (and what are the chances?) he’d been there before as a youngster and so was immediately engaged and excited. Whew! And, well, you can watch the rest:

What does biodiversity do for us?

Here’s a blast from the past. Back in 2013 while at SNRE a friend and I made a video for a class on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Another of my professors recently emailed asking about it and I dug it out of YouTube mothballs. At least, I thought it’d been collecting dust, it turns out in the interim almost 25,000 people have watched it online! I re-watched it the other day and it made me smile. Give it a look and enjoy the silly animations and my over-eager/too-often-falsetto/mic-proximity-variable voiceover (in my defense Cynthia is a professional singer/songwriter so her impeccable stage voice sets a pretty high bar).

Open Access to Federally Funded Science

The momentum behind opening access to scientific publications got a big boost this week with a directive from the White House for large, federally-funded agencies to make publications and data publicly available. The announcement was made in part in response to a “We the people” petition created last May that has since generated more than 65 thousand signatures. The announcement is, I believe, an important step in the right direction towards making scientific discovery more transparent and easily accessible.

Currently, the vast majority of published research exists behind a very expensive paywall. Publishers charge academic and research institutions a high price for access to their papers, and in return facilitate the peer-review process and the cataloguing and archiving of this research. This relationship between scientists and journals has existed in some form for ages, but as prices for subscriptions creep up and more and more journals are created, the price of maintaining these subscriptions has become prohibitive for many NGOs, consulting agencies, libraries and the public.

Public access to journal articles is increasing with efforts, for example, by Google Scholar to digitize research PDFs. Even Google can be hit or miss though, and many papers just aren’t available. The Public Library of Science (PLOS), is an important open access journal and has led the way in outlining an open publication business plan. Nonetheless the vast majority of research articles are still published in expensive, private journals. This directive from the administration could double the number of articles made public each year [1].

Why is it important that science is freely accessible? Dr. John Holdren, the author of the announcement, and the President’s Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, laid out the argument well in the memorandum. Making public these data and discoveries will enable companies to capitalize on scientific research, which will then result in innovations useful for the public. As examples he cites open weather data for the forecasting industry and genome sequences which have led to biotech breakthroughs [2]. Holdren also suggests the possibility of new spin-off industries for the curation, preservation, analysis and visualization of this newly publicly available data. I think it’s interesting that his arguments are entirely economic. I’m even more optimistic at the chance for environmental agencies, city and state policy-makers and grassroots movements to be able to draw on the latest scientific knowledge.

Just to be a bit more specific, the memorandum from the President directs federal agencies with more than $100 million of annual, publicly funded research to outline a plan in the next 6 months for making all data and published research open and free to access. Agencies likely to fall under this umbrella include the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, Defense Department, the Energy Department, and the National Institute of Health [3]. Interestingly, the NIH actually began making its data and findings open access in 2008 [4] and will hopefully serve as a successful model for all of these other agencies.

A few caveats to the policy are getting some critical attention. The first is that research papers likely wouldn’t become freely accessible until the end of a 12 month publication embargo. This is seen, mildly, as a frustrating lag [5], and, more vehemently from Dr. Michael Eisen for example, as a “massive sellout of public interest to publishers” [6]. While I agree that it’s freely-available cutting-edge research that will most speed further research and development interests, especially in biotech, engineering, and other high-turnover disciplines, even a 12 month embargo before open access seems like a tremendous step in the right direction.

A concern that’s a bit closer to my heart and that I haven’t heard discussed yet is how this new wealth of research will be distilled into useful facts for lay audiences. The pay wall isn’t the only barrier to turning scientific research into innovations and insight useful for the public.  As Science Sushi‘s Christie Wilcox more eloquently said, the “Jargon Wall” can be just as insurmountable [7]. (By the way, if any of these topics interest you, read Wilcox’s blog. In my opinion she sets the standard).

We know all too well that even good science, left to stand on its own, can quickly become misrepresented and turn into cannon fodder for political debate. ImageNo example illustrates this more clearly than the now infamous shrimp on a treadmill experiment [8]. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) set in his sights a small facet of an NSF-funded project looking at the physiological response of shrimp to water quality and turned a reasonable experiment on an important topic into a case study of misspent government funds. Free access to all publicly funded projects may enable more misrepresentation of science in the future. Scientists are going to have to get much better about bridging this information gap and informing the public about why their research is important and worth our tax dollars.

Scientists have a credibility problem with the public, and are losing a lot of important public debates to more colorful but less accurate arguments. While making information free and available is a crucial first step, we can’t expect public discourse to become more informed just like that. The scientific community also has to get better about translating their research and bypassing that jargon wall. It’s a challenge, but as I’ve posted here before, social media is a very compelling tool that may provide one answer. This is a theme I’ll be returning to in future posts so please stay tuned.

In sum, President Obama’s directive to make publicly funded research freely available is an exciting step in the right direction to establishing access to science as a public right. This announcement coincides with a bill currently making its way through congress called the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) which would require open access to all publicly funded research only 6 months after publication. The fate of the bill is uncertain given the political climate, but contact your Representative and Senator and hopefully we can make sure it happens. It is important that everyone have free access to science, but this ease of access also necessitates the next step: distilling that research into useful information. I think scientists are up for the challenge, and we should all be excited that President Obama has opened the door for this first step.

Harnessing Social Media For Science: Part 3: Deputization and Donation

Sorry this post is a long time in coming. My dissertation caught up with me and I’ve been pounding away at that for the last two weeks. Now, more on social media and science!

So far I’ve tried to show that social networks are big, and are increasingly the medium that people are using to interact with each other (read here). In my second post I presented a few examples of how scientists can use social networks as tools. Beyond the obvious potential of networking with colleagues from around the globe, I argued that social media, particularly blogs, can be a powerful tool for science education. In today’s post I will talk a little bit more about what scientists can hope to get back from their efforts engaging with social media. I will save convincing you that you have time for social networks for my fourth and final post on Harnessing Social Media for Science.

I want to first illustrate my point with this excellent video from Dr. Brian Sidlauskas’ Lab at Oregon State University:

For those of you at work who don’t want to plug in your headphones, here’s the quick version (but do go back and watch the video, it’s an excellent example of telling a good science story in an approachable way):  Professor Sidlauskas led an expedition to capture fish from the Cuyuni River in Guyana. He ended up catching some 5,000 (talk about a good day’s fishing!) but his export permits required he identify each of the fish before taking them out of the country. In order to do so, Dr. Sidlauskas uploaded pictures of the fish to his Facebook account, tagged friends (who happened to be preeminent ichthyologists) and incredibly, over the course of the next 24 hours, nearly all of the specimens had at least a preliminary identification!

Here’s an example where, without the use of social networking tools, this expedition wouldn’t have been such a success. Instead it would have taken one of two courses: Dr. Sidlauskas could have collected far fewer specimens, leaving the river under-sampled and potentially new species undiscovered, or he could have stayed in-country for the months it’d have taken to identify the fish himself, which was a prohibitively expensive prospect. Instead, he found this third, in all ways superior option through social networking.

Citizen science has increasingly been on the scientific community’s mind, there was even a recent special issue published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on the topic. Citizen science employs a “social” approach to collecting data by deputizing massive numbers of volunteers to collect a little bit of information and feed it into a broader database. In this way, very quickly, researchers can amass data that otherwise would be nearly impossible to collect by themselves.

One of the flagship citizen science projects currently underway is eBird run through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have thousands of volunteers worldwide who have made millions of bird observations and logged them into eBird’s database. By aggregating this data they can get a very detailed look at the distribution and abundance of bird species all over the world. One of the leading criticisms of citizen science projects is data quality, but researchers are getting very sophisticated in the way they can “clean” datasets, so the data are becoming more and more useful (The Frontiers special issue has some articles to this end). Check out the data for yourself, all of eBird’s data is freely available online.

The latest, and I think one of the most exciting advancements in using social technologies for science, is crowdsourced fundraising. Competition for money from national granting agencies is getting steeper and steeper resulting in important research projects being abandoned due to a lack of resources. In the last couple of years scientists have started turning to the masses to help fund their research. The basic idea is that if a lot of people give a little bit of money, those funds can add up to enable a research project that couldn’t otherwise happen.

Kickstarter is perhaps the best-known crowdfunding website, but several additional platforms have arisen specifically to give scientists a leg up. Check out RocketHub, PetriDish, ScienceDonors, Uwingu, and the Open Genius Project for some examples. Here‘s one my brother is currently leading, check it out to see how they work!

I’m excited about crowd funding science for several reasons. First, it’s a great way to reach out and tell people about cutting edge research in an approachable way. Second, once people have given a bit of money to support a science project they’ll be invested, literally, in following the progress and results of their investment. This is a terrific way of keeping people engaged in learning about science from the beginning to the end of a research project. Finally, crowd funding is raising a lot of money – some 1.5 billion dollars last year for over a million successfully funded projects (1). Scientists can and should capitalize on this money to facilitate projects that maybe otherwise couldn’t happen.

To sum up, harnessing social networks can be a powerful tool for scientists to facilitate and fund research projects. While there are many reasons for scientists to use social media to network and reach out to inform the public, there are even more ways for scientists to benefit directly from social media in their own work. Next up, convincing scientists they have the time to dive in!


Update: While I have a fourth post written about the next steps for scientists, I’m actually looking to publish it first in a slightly more public forum. I will keep you posted once I’ve managed to put it all together.

Harnessing Social Media For Science: Part 2: Collaboration and Education

My more candid readers have pointed out that I promised to convince you that scientists should be on social networks and my first post in this series managed only to demonstrate that social networks are big. I didn’t want to belabor the point but hopefully I also partially convinced you that people are making big gains (in cash or publicity) from their social media presence. Now it’s time to elaborate a bit on why I think scientists should join these networks.

First, and most obviously, social networks are a great way for scientists to… network. We all know that networking is important, that’s part of the reason we go to conferences. Twitter connects scientists from all over the world instantly. If you want to find people with similar interests, brainstorm with someone in a totally different field or just get a sense of what others are talking about, spend a day on twitter following some of the scientists in your field. Real, valuable, scientific conversations are happening daily online. Twitter has a reputation for inanity, after all how much can we say of worth in 140 characters? The answer is a lot, and distilling conversations and points to just a couple of short sentences is itself a valuable skill. Twitter is intimidating to the uninitiated (I’m thinking about ways around that) but I’d strongly encourage scientists at any level in their career to create an account and give it a try.

There are quite a few other social networks springing up specifically for scientists to network, collaborate and brainstorm. If you’re interested here are a few that I’ve looked into from time to time: mendeley.com, f1000.com, academia.edu. These social web portals are a great way for scientists to meet, discuss and share ideas but I think they miss the great potential of social networks: reaching outside the scientific bubble.

There is an epidemic of science illiteracy plaguing the United States. 72% of Americans can’t pass a basic science literacy test (1). This test covers basic information assumed in order to understand the NYTimes Science section or a NOVA program on TV. The test questions include “Did modern humans live alongside dinosaurs?” and “Does the Earth revolve around the sun?” Participants only need to answer 20 of the 30 questions in order to be considered science literate and almost three quarters of Americans can’t cross that threshold! Furthermore, two thirds of Americans can’t name a living scientist (2). These two findings, in my mind, are a tragedy.

I think that science illiteracy takes two critical forms. The first is a lack of knowledge about the facts scientists do agree upon (I’m thinking evolution and climate change here). The second is a basic lack of understanding about science itself as a discipline, as a process. Scientists on social networks have a chance to change this.

According to the most recent survey I can find, put out by the Pew Center, some forty million Americans rely on the internet as their primary source of news and information about science (3). Now this survey was conducted in 2006. As a sense of scale, Facebook was 5 orders of magnitude smaller back then. I’m sure this number has increased in the intervening years. If tens of millions of Americans (lets ignore the rest of the world for now) are looking online for science information but very few scientists have a significant online presence, where are they getting that science information?

Well, this begs the question, who do scientists rely on to publicize their findings? The answer, largely, is journalists. This is a problem because for every conscientious, well-informed journalist there are many more who don’t fully understand the research they’re reporting on or who intentionally highlight (dare I say misrepresent?) components of research in order to grab headlines. (See here for a diagrammatic representation of the science news cycle) And these are just the journalists. The story gets much scarier when you realize that many people think they’re getting science information when in fact they’re being fed information from interest groups with an agenda capitalizing on the title “science” to gain credibility.

So what’s to be done? In my opinion, the best way to make sure your research is being presented accurately to the world is to communicate it yourself, online, in ways that are searchable and easily approachable. The ideal format for this is a blog. Of course you’re reading a blog now, and while mine by no means represents the gold standard of science communication, this post itself illustrates some of the strengths that I think make blogs a valuable tool for scientists.

First, it’s littered with links, so if something I write strikes your interest you have an opportunity to immediately follow up and continue learning. This is an exciting idea making blogs a powerful tool for education; following link after link around the world wide web can quickly and engagingly give someone a deeper understanding of a topic. Second, it’s permanent. This blog post will be archived both on this site but also on the web at large so if someone wants to revisit it in a year or in ten, they’ll be able to. That leads to a third strength: it’s searchable. The content of a blog is easily searched for on the web which means that people who are interested can get directed to your site quickly and easily. Fourth, it’s international. Remember I said that more than 40 million Americans are online looking for science information? Expand that number to the rest of the world which is increasingly being connected to the web. While there are significant language barriers to contend with, the potential reach of a single blog post is outstanding (For example, my blog has been read by people in 58 countries).  Finally, blogs lend themselves to less formal writing, meaning that, as Christie Wilcox, a blogger for Scientific American said, “jargon-walls” (4) can come down and non-scientists can begin approaching cutting-edge science research.

So what’s in it for you, the scientists? Well, networking has myriad obvious payoffs and Twitter is arguably an even better way of networking than exchanging business cards over cocktail hour at a conference. Blogging is a bigger time commitment though and the returns are a bit less obvious. For myself, I am passionate about science education, and so I am motivated by my desire to get people excited about science. Enlightened self-interest should also sway some to want to communicate more with the public: elected officials affect science directly through NSF budgets or legislated research restrictions and our daily lives through, for example, environmental policy. I want the electorate to know as much as possible about the issues and I think we have valuable information to share. If that’s not enough, there’s some cool evidence that published papers that are blogged about are cited more frequently (5) – see if you can’t boost your impact factor.

If you’re still not convinced, stay tuned for my next post where I’ll talk about using social networks to facilitate research projects that otherwise couldn’t happen.

Harnessing Social Media For Science: Part 1: The Setup

I want to elaborate on my ideas for social media and science over the next several days in four parts. My goal is to both clarify the arguments in my mind and to present a more in-depth resource for those interested in learning more than my poorly-captioned slideshows can tell. I hope these musings will spark further conversations.

In today’s post I want to show you that Social Networks are vast, valuable and should be thought of by scientists as a huge potential asset. After that, in parts 2 and 3 I’ll explain what scientists should hope to get in return for their social media efforts, and then I’ll conclude with part 4, discussing where I think scientists should go next.

Harnessing Social Media For Science: Part 1: The Setup

Social Networks are increasingly becoming the primary way people talk with each other. More than half of Americans report that they spend more time talking with people online than they do in real life (1). Now, we can debate (online) about just how big or small a problem this is, but the bottom line is, social networks are no longer just a microcosm of everyday “real” life, they are the places people young and old are living their lives hour after hour every day.

When talking about Social Networks people immediately imagine Facebook, and reasonably so: Facebook is by far the largest social network geographically and demographically. In the 8 years since its founding it has permeated culture so thoroughly that words it invented have been put in our dictionaries (Actually that only took Facebook about 18 months, 2) Facebook recently welcomed its one billionth active user (3). If Facebook were a country it would be the world’s third largest, and three-times the size of the US, but watch out, it’s growing way faster than any of the others.

Twitter is the next closest Social Network weighing in at a very impressive 500 million active users (4). While twitter doesn’t have quite the reach that Facebook does its growth is more than twice that of Facebook in the US (5). Google has also more recently joined the fray with its offering, Google+ which reached the 20 million user benchmark in a fraction of the time it took Facebook and Twitter. It’s quite easily imaginable that Google+ will also reach global proportions in the next few years.

There are a lot of sectors in society capitalizing on all these hundreds of millions of eyeballs. Politicians and celebrities maybe most notoriously (I’m sad to report that Britney Spears has more twitter followers than President Obama) but brands are also finding Social Networks a fertile ground for advertising and profits. Entirely new industries have even been created for these social media platforms earning hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Still need to be convinced that scientists should be thinking of ways to capitalize on the wave of social networks? The average Facebook user spends about 55 minutes a day on Facebook (6). Multiply that by the billion current active users and that equates to some 100,000 people-years of attention spent every day on Facebook! Imagine what scientists could do with even just a fraction of that attention.

I’ll elaborate a bit tomorrow on what I think scientists should want to do on Social Networks and then, what they can hope to get in return for their efforts.