#Solo10 – beyond science blogging?…

This Friday and Saturday saw a strangely mixed crowd descend on the British Library (BL). What could  bring scientists, journalists, politicians, teachers and marketing executives together under the same roof for two days? Well, basically, science. On-line.

I have to admit that when I signed up to be a part of that mixed crowd, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. After attending a few #ukscitweetup, I guess the first thing I expected was a similar event – on a very big scale, from a dozen people to over hundred. So I was counting on some interesting chats about what we all do on-line – from blogging to twitting and other virtual presences. But beyond the chit-chat at coffee breaks and in the pub after the end of “formal” sessions, I really wasn’t sure what would be available, particularly since I only had time to briefly look at the final programme.

I guess what I expected was to participate in interesting discussions on how we can raise the profile of science both on and off line, as well as get a flavour of what technologies and new developments are out there that can be useful in our Web2.0 interactions, as well as our research. Moreover, I was hoping to derive useful hints to improve my skills as I venture more and more into science communication.

As familiar faces poured into the Conference Centre at the BL, I was sure that the conversational side of the conference was going to be fun – and interesting. More so when I finally got to meet some familiar virtual names in the flesh. As for the more “serious” side of it, things were about to unravel in the main auditorium.

What a fantastic way to start such a conference: hearing Sir Martin Rees advocate open access publishing and on-line journals. Moreover, his views on how the universities need to reshape their teaching models, with the “students seating in full lectures rooms, with little interaction with lecturers now rendered useless” was inspiring. Definitely one of the highlights of #solo10. “There’s no such thing as free context” was a key sentence that resonated in my mind from the Q&A afterwards.

Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal at SOLO10 (from Mendeley.com)

The following discussion chaired by David Dobbs with Ed Yong, Alice Bell and Martin Robbins on the future of science journalism focused on how “traditional” science journalism needs to evolve into new environment and what added value can and should it include. Alice’s idea of moving science journalism “upstream” sounds  particularly interesting and, in my opinion, a road to explore for both journalists and bloggers. It might be a great way to make more and more people aware of how science is done and therefore enhance understanding.

... and chatting

Eating...

Lunch time brought us back to the “social” side of things, exchanging experiences over delicious food. The chance to meet new people and hear about other experiences was always going to be a huge part of this conference – and even munching away on our “finger food”, we managed to have interesting chats.

The afternoon saw the crowd splitting into different rooms, with parallel sessions covering topics from Science education to citizen science. After hearing about three different accounts on data sharing, storing and access , it was time for a revisit to IAS2010. It brought back memories of one of the most fun and gruelling experiences I’ve ever had when doing science communication – and I loved it! A true pleasure to talk about it to an audience that seemed to appreciate its potential. And great to meet one of the participants on the other side of the screen – Julia Heathcote, a teacher in West London whose class took part in flooding the “Cancer Zone” with questions. Great chat afterwards  that sparkled some ideas that we might share with everyone soon…

As the day come to an end, a final panel discussion on science blogging. The raising profile of blogs as a key science communication tool that needs to be acknowledged by the institutions were scibloggers work was discussed, as well as the differences between blog networks. Interestingly, the issue of junior scientists blogging, its impact on their careers and how it is perceived by their colleagues proved to be the most participated part of the discussion. As Jenny Rohn said, “writing in [the] public [domain] is seen as time wasting more than any other hobby”. My personal experience is limited, but I would even extend this idea to most science communication forms. Unlike doing any sport, any arts and crafts hobbies or any other creative/physical activity that scientists might pursue in their free time, science communication is still seen mostly as time wasting… something that was also brought up in the second day, following on from Dr Evan Harris talk and the SciVote discussion.

Dr Harris argued that scientists need to also participate in policy change, not just “public engagement” as intervening at decision making points is key for may issues. Basically, he called for scientists to lobby for science – as the “other side” do it, so should we. The identity of this “other side” prompted a few jokes, but it was clear that he was referring to different “other sides”, depending when which subject in discussion: from homeopathy to animal research to GM organisms and stem cells. And as science funding is under threat of serious cuts, the time to take action seems so be upon us…*

Prior to this talk, I was delighted to hear Aleks Krotoski discuss the social implications of our virtual presences and how they can and are being studied, stressing that great power to probe these online interactions must come great responsibility that it mus be done ethically. “[The] technology was built to connect people with data, but it is actually connecting people with people and we shouldn’t take people out of the equation [when studying online phenomena]“

A moment of almost pure beauty come with the the first breakout session of the day and the wonderful talk from David McCandless. A feast for the eyes, delighting my very visual brain. Ideas for next time I need to present some data here

The afternoon brought us to the “unconference sessions”, hosted by participants that had proposed themes the previous day. I decided to attend the session that seemed to gravitate around data tools. I was deeply excited by Hyperwords – although having it installed for more than 2 days, must admit it has so far failed my expectations following the demo.

The second unconference session congregated 3 different approaches to open access/open publishing. Discussion soon gravitated towards impact factors and their weight in science careers nowdays. According to Theo Bloom, government and funding bodies use impact factors with both scientists and journals falling victims to it. Furthermore, people require “Nature” or “Science” label because they believe that is needed for their careers – which reminded me of Jenny Rohn’s recent blog posts and the discussion that followed.

A view of the audience at SOLO10

The day and the conference ended with what should have been an open discussion on the results of a RIN and University of Manchester e-Research Centre on adoptability of Web2.0 by scientists. Two of the poorest presentations I’ve seen in a long time prevented that and instead triggered a downpour of tweets (check tweets from 3:30 to 5pm) on presentation skills, powerpoint and kittengenocide. A wasted opportunity. If all was not lost in this session, we owe Richard Grant for a great final intervention – summing up what online tools need to bring to draw adopters: added value (and fun counts!) and allowing you to do something you must do, but in a easier way. And off to the pub we all went.

At the end of it all, I felt like I had a great time, met very interesting people and discussed science in some of its brother senses: a drive for curiosity and knowledge – and the will to share that with as many people as we can.

However, I am left with a serious reflection on the more serious outcomes any conference brings me to: what did I learn? How useful was it?

And this is were I think Solo10 wasn’t a complete success for me personally. I would have liked to have left with a few “take home” messages, some nuggets of knowledge I can use in my online science communication, some new tools to communicate and also to do research better, fully exploring the potential of the net. May be it was me, may be a missed a few key talks in the breakout sessions – but I think solo11 needs a huge improvement in this area. The programme needs to explore more, to reach out more. After all, science online isn’t all about blogging…

*Comment added after Vince Cable’s (in)famous speech

PS: a major highlight was seeing the ISS pass over the night sky for the first time, in the great company of Karen James. Thanks!

Disclosure: this is post is not intended to be in anyway an accurate account of SoLo10, just a personal view of this two day conference. For more details, visit the official website and check the #solo10 twitter feed, with links to many other blogs on the subject. For a round up, see here

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