May 2013

ScienceOnline

Science in the Internet 2.0 era

ScienceOnline logo

In the seven years since ScienceOnline founders Anton Zuiker and Bora Zikovic wondered if it would be possible (or even advisable) to host a meeting for science bloggers, the conference has exploded beyond its humble North Carolina roots and birthed a new worldwide community of science communicators who are harnessing the power of the Internet to change the way science is done.
 
ScienceOnline represents a new paradigm for how science will be conducted in the 21st century, one that brings together a (rapidly growing) segment of the scientific community that works at the interface of research and communication. As ScienceOnline Executive Director Karyn Traphagen explains, ScienceOnline “enables connections between researchers in diverse fields of science by bringing them out of their specialized conferences and tapping into their shared experience of using the Internet to do and communicate science online.”


Using the vogue un-conference style, ScienceOnline attendees propose, develop and engage in a series of sessions focused on improving the way science is communicated to the public, such as using narrative in science writing, dealing with science deniers and reaching underserved audiences. Yet for conference participants, many of whom are researchers, the best part of ScienceOnline happens outside of the session rooms, where, as neuroscience blogger Scicurious points out, “new conversations get started.”
 
Scientists and communicators rub elbows with Internet celebrities: journalist-bloggers such as Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, freelance writers such as David Dobbs, and online personalities such as the Huffington Post’s Cara Santa Maria and Canadian rap artist Baba Brinkman. Such informal interactions cement personal and professional relationships.
 
“Being able to meet, and get to know, many of the biggest people in science blogs was huge [for my career],” says Scicurious.
 
Traphagen agrees, recalling her delight in “hearing stories of joint projects, job opportunities, and other connections that have happened because people met each other at ScienceOnline.”
 
Like the neural circuitry in the brain, the online community of science communicators grows and strengthens with each connection made, and those who participate are able to channel their enthusiasm and pass it on to their colleagues. “I’ve been twice,” says science writer Cristy Gelling, “and both times I’ve come away really energized and inspired.”


Thanks to the supportive atmosphere and accessible format, ScienceOnline has inspired the proliferation of spin-off satellites across the globe. Monthly meetings under the ScienceOnline banner have begun in Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver and San Diego, along with a Washington, D.C., version co-organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Satellite events are even taking place in Vancouver, Adelaide and Leiden, taking the movement international.
 
ScienceOnlineOceans logoSome ScienceOnline devotees, including marine biologist David Shiffman, are going even further. Shiffman is heading the development of ScienceOnlineOceans, a three-day conference focused on all things ocean that will make its debut in October. “Marine sciences are a big topic,” says Shiffman, “and there’s more than enough online science to fill a focused meeting.”
 
ScienceOnlineTeen logoLikewise, a group of young scientists organized ScienceOnlineTeen, a teen-centric version of ScienceOnline that took place in April. “ScienceOnlineTeen helps to show students that there’s a whole community of people just like them who want to explore and share scientific knowledge to satisfy their own curiosity,” points out high-school student and conference co-organizer Hanna Ramsden.


As these satellite meetings and conferences demonstrate, the demand for events such as ScienceOnline is skyrocketing. The well-documented need for scientists to become better communicators is part of the new world order for science. Being able to communicate science effectively to the public is now a required skill, a point hammered home in a recent article by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele in the journal Science, which stated that “a world in which one in seven people actively use Facebook and more than 340 million tweets are being posted every day is not the future of science communication any more. It is today’s reality.”
 
With science reporting by the mainstream media fading, science communicators are becoming the sole sources of reliable, accurate scientific information. Luckily, meetings like ScienceOnline are providing the avenues for novices to become experts, individuals to become part of a community, and the community as a whole to grow and improve.
 
Ultimately, what makes this trend so successful is the passion for science shared by those who are taking part and the unified goal of making science more accessible to the public. Now it is up to rest of the scientific community to come along for the ride. There is plenty of room on board.
 
To learn more about ScienceOnline, visit scienceonline.com or connect with the community on Twitter by searching for #scio13 and #scio14.

Geoff HuntGeoff Hunt (ghunt@asbmb.org) is ASBMB’s outreach coordinator. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/goodbyeshoe.

 

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