Category Archives: Andrew Maynard

Last run for the Mind The Science Gap blog

After nearly two years and four hundred posts, the science communication course at the University of Michigan that feeds the Mind The Science Gap blog is coming to and end.  In between running a department, directing a research center, teaching, and actually doing research, something had to go.  And sadly, Mind The Science Gap was it.  The existing posts will remain, but there won’t be any new ones.  Sorry!  And thank you so much to everyone who has written for, promoted and commented on the blog – you have always been deeply appreciated. Continue reading Last run for the Mind The Science Gap blog

When to name and shame on Social Media, and when to show compassion…

This is a piece I had hoped not to post – at least so soon – and still feel uneasy about, as it refers to events that will probably cause hurt to some people.  But as I have been called out on Twitter and discussion around the events is gaining some momentum, a little clarification is probably in order. Continue reading When to name and shame on Social Media, and when to show compassion…

Carbon nanotubes as a potent cancer promoter – new data from NIOSH

On Monday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety released new data on the potential role multi-walled carbon nanotubes play as a cancer-promoter – a substance that promotes the development of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.  In the study, mice were injected with methylcholanthrene – a cancer initiating agent – and subsequently exposed to airborne multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Compared to a control group, the methylcholanthrene and carbon nanotube-exposed mice were significantly more likely to develop tumors than a control group, developed more tumors, and developed larger tumors.  The study provides a strong indication that this particular form of carbon nanotube material can synergistically increase the likelihood and severity of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen. Continue reading Carbon nanotubes as a potent cancer promoter – new data from NIOSH

Top 10 Most Promising Technology Trends 2013, from the World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has just published its annual list of the top ten emerging technology trends.  Based on expert assessment from council members and others, the list provides insight into technologies that have the potential to have a significant economic and social impact in the near to mid term.

This year’s list includes: Continue reading Top 10 Most Promising Technology Trends 2013, from the World Economic Forum

At the frontiers of the science of health risk – five areas to watch

Cross-posted from Risk Sense

This week’s Risk Bites video takes a roller-coaster ride through some of the hottest topics in risk science.

Admittedly this is a somewhat personal list, and rather constrained by being compressed into a two and a half minute video for a broad audience. But it does touch on some of the more exciting frontier areas in reducing health risk and improving well-being through research and its application.

Here are the five topics that ended up being highlighted:

BIG DATA

Click to watch segment

 

Despite pockets of cynicism over the hype surrounding “big data”, the generation and innovative use of massive amounts of data are transforming how health risks are identified and addressed. With new approaches to data curation, correlation, manipulation and visualization, seemingly disconnected and impenetrable datasets are becoming increasingly valuable tools for shedding new insights into what might cause harm, and how to avoid or reduce it. This is a trend that has been growing for some years, but is now rapidly gaining momentum.

Just four examples of how “big data” is already pushing the boundaries of risk science include:

  • High throughput toxicity screening, where rapid, multiple toxicity assays are changing how the potential hazards of new and existing substances are evaluated;
  • “Omics”, where genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, exposomics and similar fields are shedding new light on the complex biology at the human-environment interface and how this impacts on health and well-being;
  • Risk prediction through the integrated analysis of related datasets; and
  • Designing new chemicals, materials and products to be as safe as possible, by using sophisticated risk data analysis to push risk management up the innovation pipeline.

CLOUD HEALTH, or C-HEALTH

Click to watch segment

 

Hot on the tails of mobile-health, the convergence of small inexpensive sensors, widespread use of smart phones and cloud computing, is poised to revolutionize how risk-relevant data is collected, processed and used to make decisions. Sensors already built into smart phones are already being used to collect basic information on environmental factors that could impact on health – and increasingly sophisticated add-on sensors are becoming more and more available. On their own, these data aren’t that valuable. But with cloud computing it is becoming possible to process and analyze risk-related data from thousands or millions of users – and then provide contributors with personal, near real-time information on potential risks and avoidance strategies. We’re not there yet – but C-Health is on the way!

RESPONSIBLE INNOVATION

Click to watch segment

 

The idea of responsible innovation has been around for some time. The idea is to reduce the potential for future adverse health and environmental impacts by integrating risk management and avoidance strategies into the technology innovation process. And with new technologies emerging at an increasing rate, the social and economic importance of responsible innovation has never been greater. In fields ranging from advanced manufacturing, sophisticated materials and synthetic biology, to 3D printing and remote charging, there is an increasing push to ensure that technological development is informed by the science of risk. And it isn’t only to ensure actual risks are avoided – societal and economic success through responsible innovation also depends on addressing perceived risks.

“HEADOLOGY”

Click to watch segment

 

The psychology and sociology of how individuals and groups make risk-relevant decisions, and the subsequent consequences of these decisions, is a critical component of the science of risk. Just because it is social science rather than natural science does not diminish its importance. In fact, without a sophisticated understanding of how empirical data on hazard, exposure and risk translate into human understanding and action, risk assessment and the science behind it is pretty worthless. But why call this frontier “headology” – which is a made-up word from satirical author Terry Pratchett? Apart from being a little tongue in cheek, I wanted to get away from some of the baggage associated with terms like “risk communication” and “social science”. But whatever you call it, in today’s increasingly connected world, understanding the human element linking data and action on risk is becoming increasingly important.

COMPLEX INTERACTIONS

Click to watch segment

 

This is a bit of a catch-all, but as the “simpler” challenges associated with health risks are resolved (and I use the word “simple” with caution) we are being faced with an ever-growing array of more complex challenges. These include:

  • Exploring and understanding the importance of non-linearity in dose-response relationships – especially at low doses;
  • Getting a better handle on the health-relevance of low level exposures to some substances – especially over long time periods;
  • Better understanding the science behind exposure to synthetic chemicals with hormone-like properties; and
  • Understanding that nature and significance of epigenetic interactions – both within a generation and across generations.

These and similar areas arise from complex interactions between our bodies and the environment we live in – and create for ourselves. The list could be a lot longer, but the bottom line is that some of the knottiest and most significant challenges in risk science involve understanding the positive and adverse impacts of interactions that are not yet well understood.

There are other areas that could have easily made this list – and in all cases these are areas that will continue to remain important well beyond 2013. So feel free to expand on the list in the comments below. And have a great 2013!

 

On the benefits of wearing a hat while dancing naked, and other insights into the science of risk

Risk Bites – my new foray into the world of YouTube informal education – was officially launched a few weeks ago (although the transition from “unofficial” to “official” simply meant posting new videos more regularly!).  The channel is an experiment in overcoming the tedium and seeming irrelevance of much academic online content by unbundling the things that I research and teach and talking about the interesting stuff in an engaging and accessible way.

Is it working?  It’s too early to say yet.  I’m getting good feedback from my peers.  But I have yet to crack how to get a much wider pool of eyeballs onto the videos (any offers of publicity here gratefully received – the url is http://youtube.com/riskbites – just in case you need it!).  What I’m really looking for is a growing number of subscribers and viewers who are entertained and informed by the videos.

That said, I’m learning a lot from the experience.  The workflow is admittedly crude (idea, script, voice-over, storyboard, film, edit, post – all fit into an already packed schedule).  But that in turn means that the videos can be nearly as responsive as writing a blog post – as last week’s response to the Sandy Hook shootings showed.  In fact, the whole feel of the exercise is very much like the early days of writing posts for 2020 Science.

Filming Risk Bites (click the image to see the video)

The big difference though is the challenge of taking my work on risk and evidence-informed decision-making and dividing it into very short pieces that create a coherent narrative.  A 1 – 2 minute video allows for between 200 – 400 words, which isn’t a whole lot to handle the intricacies of the science of human health risk.  Even seemingly basic concepts like dose-response need a surprising amount of groundwork.  But the beauty of a series of videos like this is that simple self-contained “bites” can be combined to develop a much more complex bigger picture over time.  It’s more like having a conversation with your viewers – albeit a rather drawn out one – than hitting them with the full weight of risk science all at once (intellectually satisfying to the lecturer, but terrifying for everyone else!).

Brave new territory for me.  But quite exhilarating.  And a lot of fun!

All I need now is as many subscribers as I can scarf up.

Open access academics: Experiments with YouTube, the Science of Risk, and Professional Amateurism

YouTube intrigues me.  Having been dragged into the YouTube culture by my teenagers over the past two years, I’ve been fascinated by the shift from seemingly banal content to a sophisticated social medium. But what has really grabbed my attention is the growth of YouTube as a unique and powerful platform for informal education which is being driven not by the educational establishment, but by an emerging educational counterculture. Continue reading Open access academics: Experiments with YouTube, the Science of Risk, and Professional Amateurism

Why should I wash my hands if I only pee?

Credit: Gillian Mayman

Cross-posted from Risk Sense

“Why should I wash my hands if I only pee?” It’s the sort of question most parents have had to handle at some time – especially if you have pretentious kids who delight in telling you how pure pee is! It’s also the subject of the first post in this semester’s Mind The Science Gap – a student science-writing blog I have great fun in overseeing.

Mind The Science Gap takes ten public health graduate students and helps them hone their science communication skills in one of the toughest but most effective ways I know – by requiring them to post articles and respond to comments every week (without fail) for ten weeks. The rules are pretty simple – Continue reading Why should I wash my hands if I only pee?

Jumping the gap between a US and UK high school education

Tomorrow, my 16 year old daughter is leaving her home in the US for the UK. She’ll be there for the next two years while she studies for her A levels.  It was a heart-rending decision for my wife and I to agree to her living apart from us in a different country.  But the stark reality is that my daughter’s high school education here is just not good enough to prepare her for a British University – and in two years’ time, that’s where she wants to be. Continue reading Jumping the gap between a US and UK high school education

“We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish”

Sometimes you read a science article and it sends a shiver tingle down your spine.  That was my reaction this afternoon reading Ed Yong’s piece on a paper just published in Nature Biotechnology by Janna Nawroth, Kevin Kit Parker and colleagues.

The gist of the work is that Parker’s team have created a hybrid biological machine that “swims” like a jellyfish by growing rat heart muscle cells on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane.  The researchers are using the technique to explore muscular pumps, but the result opens the door to new technologies built around biological-non biological hybrids.

To get a sense of what Parker et al. have achieved, it’s worth watching this video of the “medusoid” in action – the movement comes about by a single layer of heart muscles grown on the substrate contracting synchronously as an electric field is applied to the liquid.

For a more detailed account of the research, I would also recommend reading Ed Young’s excellent piece, and the original paper.

What particularly intrigues me here is the fusion between the biological and the non-biological.  While synthetic biology has typically focused on manipulating organisms through designer-DNA, this more practical approach to engineering biology could go a long way very fast – even before genetically engineered components are added.

In the case of the machine above, the result is a relatively functionless entity that moves when an external voltage is applied.  But it wouldn’t take much to engineer in a self-contained voltage source and pulse regulator, and maybe some control elements – fueled by further hybrid biological components.  What you end up with is an engineering construction kits for biological machines that could be as attractive to the DIY bio community as mainstream technologists.  With the addition of genetically designed components, this is likely to be a technology to watch.

Of course, the other reason why this story sent a shiver tingle down my spine is the quote that I used for the title of this piece – which must be one of the coolest biotech quotes ever!

Nawroth, J. C. et al. (2012) A tissue-engineered jellyfish with biomimetic propulsionNature Biotechol. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nbt.2269

(Does shiver denote dread?  Meant this was spine-tinglingly awesome!)

Social Media and the art of Academic Juggling

It had to happen – despite deluding myself that I could squeeze everything into a 140 hour work week, something’s going to have to give.  And that something is going to be regular posts on 2020 Science.  I’ll still be posting here, just not as frequently.  Chairing a department, directing a center, teaching, research, doing cool stuff with cool people, writing killer blog posts – it should be possible to do it all.  But apparently I have a family who would like to see me occasionally.  And I’ve heard that other people have this thing called “a life” – I’m intrigued to find out what that is!

I’ll still be doing plenty of stuff on line, so please do carry on engaging with me and my work in these places:

On Twitter at @2020science – 140 characters is so much easier than a 500 word blog post.  What do department chairs tweet about?  I guess I’ll find out!

On the Risk Sense blog – I’ll be putting more energy into building up the Risk Science Center blog – please spread the word, as this has the potential to be a great resource and forum on the science of human health risk.  Also, please follow the Risk Science Center on Twitter at @umrsc

On the Risk Bites YouTube channel (and also on Twitter at @microriskbites).  This is a tremendously exciting project we’re launching that provides bite-sized and highly accessible nuggets on cool stuff about science, risk and health.  We officially launch in November, but there will be a number of teasers posted before then.  Please spread the word and subscribe!

At Mind The Science Gap.  I’m running this science communication course twice a year now for our students – please subscribe to get notifications of blog posts, and support the students by commenting and spreading the word.  The next course starts in September.

And of course, there will still be the occasional must-read piece posted here – all part of the juggling act!

YouTube does the the Higgs Boson – Science communication on the quick!

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s announcement on the Higgs Boson, some of YouTube’s most viewed science communicators have been burning the midnight oil to explain why this is so exciting.  Wrapping up this series of posts on YouTube, I thought I would call out three prominent YouTubers who were at VidCon this last week, yet still found the time to pull together a video following the news.

First out of the blocks was Brady Haran with this video on the SixtySymbols channel, following the CERN seminar surrounding the announcement:

Next came Vi Hart’s “Sonnet on a Higgs-Like Particle”

And at 9:00 AM promptly this morning, Henry Reich of MinutePhysics posted his much-anticipated piece on the Higgs Boson:

What interests me especially with all three videos is how fast they were pulled together and posted, how effectively they connect with a broad audience, and how many views they have already had (not to mention the comments).  Vi Hart’s and Brady Haran’s are well over 30,000 views at the time of writing (around 24 hours after posting), while Henry Reich’s video had over 1600 likes and 450 comments within the first couple of hours of going up.  Compare this with the more mainstream (but still excellent) video from Cara Santa Maria at Huffington Post:

At the time of writing (2 days after being posted), it had 2,580 views and 19 comments.  Not shabby by any means.  But it’s clear who had the further reach here!

Update: Henry Reich pointed out that Cara gets most of her views on the Huffington Post video channel, not YouTube.  You can check out her HuffPo Higgs Boson video here [link]

And while I’m at it, here’s a late-breaking entry from Derek Muller (Veritasium on YouTube)

VidCon 2012: Online learning is where online music was five years ago

YouTube is gearing up to transform the way we learn.  At least that’s the message that came across loud and clear at this morning’s VidCon breakout panel on education. In an overflowing room of well over two hundred conference goers, head of YouTube Education Angela Lin led a panel of five leading video makers in a lively discussion, that gave a compelling glimpse of the future of online education.  And it was a future that didn’t feature too many conventional lessons or institutionalized videos!

As the panel included John and Hank Green (SciShow, CrashCourse and a gazillion other things) I was expecting a room packed to the brim with their incredibly engaged teen fans – which it was.  An odd audience you might think for a panel on education.  But this was a serious, intelligent and engaged crowd, eager to listen to the panel, ask questions and provide their own insight on online learning.  Joining the Green brothers were physics blogger Henry Reich (minutephysics), science YouTuber Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos), Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel and Vi Hart of Mathemusician and the Khan Academy.

What was notable was that these panelists are all a) successful online educators (extremely so in some cases), b) not formally trained in teaching (to my knowledge) and c) not representing mainstream educational institutions (not counting PBS).  This is important, because there was no doubt here that the excitement and impact surrounding online education is occurring outside conventional educational circles – and in many cases leaving them standing.  John Green talked about this emerging online education community as being “disruptive,” while brother Hank talked about a “new kind of learning.” And everyone the panel agreed that education content on YouTube is where online music was five or six years ago, and on the cusp of something really big.  But a big that might not necessarily include conventional educational institutions unless they get their act together!

On this point Henry Reich made the distinction between learning and teaching.  Formal educators (as well as “informal educators” in museums and on educational TV programs) teach to a curriculum or a plan, with competencies, learning objectives and evaluation being the name of the game. But at the cutting edge of community online education, content developers are using their passion and interests to facilitate user-driven learning.  And as John Green pointed out – endorsed by the packed room – people want to learn!

Bridging this gap between learning and teaching is perhaps going to be one of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – of online education over the next few years.  Without question, there is a global hunger for learning, and some very talented individuals who are beginning to satisfy this hunger using an increasing array of online tools.  This will undoubtedly help people develop and grow as individuals – but how do you also give them the tools to “do stuff” as opposed to simply enriching their understanding and satisfying their curiosity?

As new tools come online, educational institutions are jumping on the band-wagon to provide instructional content.  Initiatives like Coursera and edX are bringing college course material to a far wide audience using online video.  But even these innovations are in danger of looking turgid and outmoded in comparison to the new breed of community educators.

There are some moves to close this gap.  Brady’s Periodic Table videos for instance are used by teachers to kick-start classes and inspire kids.  And the Khan Academy is leading the field in terms of combining user-driven learning with practical teaching.  But if teaching institutions want to keep up with the revolution in online learning, it seems pretty clear that they are going to have to radically rethink their ideas of web-based content.  They are going to have to start partnering with and learning from the masters of online community education.  And they are going to have to let go a bit and embrace the mess and madness of online educational content as they respond to a growing community’s desire to learn.

What seems clear after this panel is that we are at the beginning of an exciting revolution in online educational content.  What is not clear is whether the teaching institutions can get their act together fast enough not to be sidelined in the rush toward online learning.

10/8/12: This article is translated to Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich from Geeks Education.

VidCon 2012: Community-grown science communicators smoking’ it!

I‘m over half way through the first day at VidCon 2012, and thought I would jot a few notes down on the science scene here.  OK, so maybe 7,000 people haven’t come to the Anaheim Convention Center to hear the latest on the Higgs boson and other interesting science stuff (although you’d be surprised by how many of them are interested), but after last year, I’ve become increasingly interested in how YouTube is developing as a platform for science communication, education and engagement.

After last year’s experience of a distinctly counter-culture nature, I wrote this:

Next year, VidCon will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in LA, and I suspect will attract a much larger crowd than this year.  As planning gets underway for the event, it would be really good to see participation from some of the big names in science communication on YouTube, and a greater integration of science and technology YouTube communities into the program.

I doubt very much that Hank Green – the driving force behind VidCon – is a sufficiently avid reader of 2020 Science that he read this and acted on it.  But nevertheless science has clearly moved up the agenda this year.  This in part reflects a massive increase in science content and viewership on YouTube over the past year – including the launch of Hank’s own channel SciShow.  It also reflects the fact that grass roots and alternative science communicators on YouTube are – not to put too fine a point on it – smokin’ it when it comes to connecting with today’s youth.

In this morning’s opening main stage session, Henry Reich (MinutePhysics) gave a packed audience in the Anaheim Convention Center Arena a quick lesson in quantum mechanics and the paradox of Schrödindgers cat.  And it went down a storm! Think about that – when was the last time you saw a physicist commanding the rapt attention of around 7,000 people in a live show?  Over the past year, Henry has shot up to over 300,000 YouTube subscribers and regularly gets several hundred thousand views on his videos.  His secret?  I suspect it’s in part due to his skills as an educator and the simplicity of his delivery – this the classic “chalk and talk; and a damn good teacher” model transported to YouTube, and it works!

(Minutephysics is one of the few YouTube channels my son watches regularly btw)

This afternoon, Henry was joined by Derek Muller (veritasium) and Destin (Smarter Every Day) to talk about physics on YouTube in a breakout session.  Also in the room were Vi Hart (Mathemusician on YouTube, and currently with the Khan Academy) and Brady Haran (The Periodic Table of Videos and a ton of other science communication projects).  All have an enviable reach on YouTube and videos that get tens to hundreds of thousands of hits.

The room was packed to overflowing.  I’d guess that there were around 150 or so VidCon attendees there, which believe me is impressive in a breakout session when a gazillion other things are going on.  (I think last time I spoke at a major conference at the Anaheim Convention Center, you were lucky if you got 50 people to your breakout!)  And the audience were fully engaged, with the session teetering on the edge of a physics Q&A session the whole time.

Three things in particular struck me in this room predominantly filled with young people – many of them young women:

  1. There’s a hunger for science knowledge and insights amongst these folk;
  2. The world is changing, and this new breed of community-grown science communicators are leaving more conventional approaches to science communication in the dust!
  3. As a science community, if we want to engage and connect with people outside our field more effectively, we need to be actively partnering these YouTube science stars rather than waiting for them to come to us.

Tomorrow we have a breakout session on education with Henry Reich, Brady Haran, Hank Green (SciShow), John Green (CrashCourse) and Mike Rugnetta (PBS Idea Channel).  Another science-heavy lineup that again emphasizes the growing importance of YouTube and its grass-roots science communication/engagement community.

Hank may not have read my blog from last year on upping the science at VidCon, but he certainly got the message it seems!

Update:  In my haste to post, I forgot to mention BrainSTEM – an unconference of science YouTubers held in Ontario Canada a couple of days before VidCon.  The place to be if you want to experience the cutting edge of online scicoms entrepreneurship.  Here’s a flavor from veritasium:

VidCon and YouTube Science

Having been initiated into the alternative world of teen YouTube culture last year, I am once again being dragged along to VidCon – the Comic-Con of the online video community.  This year – the third year for VidCon – promises to be bigger than better than ever with around 6,000 signed up for a two day extravaganza next week at the Anaheim Convention Center.  And it looks like science communicators and video-makers are going to have a greater presence than in the past.  Given the size, median age and enthusiasm of the participants, this is rather exciting.

I’ll be there with my daughter and a fellow vlogger from their YouTube channel Fellowshipofthening (highly recommended btw), one of a gaggle of bemused parents.  But I’ll also be on the lookout once again for how the YouTube community is intersecting with science engagement and communication.

Particularly exciting this year is the increased presence of science types at the jamboree.  Derek Muller (creator of the video blog Veritasium) is a speaker at the event, and Brady Haran of the phenomenally popular Periodic Table of Videos will be there.  Also attending (hopefully) will be Joanne Manaster, who writes for the PsiVid blog at Scientific American as well as her own video-rich blog Joanne Loves Science.

Actually, a  bit of a plug here – as Joanne is self-financing the trip, she’s looking for donations to help make it happen.  If you care about kids and science, please throw a few dollars her way – here’s where you can do that.

Then of course there is the mastermind behind the whole VidCon shebang Hank Green, who launched the SciShow YouTube channel earlier this year.  It already has nearly 200,000 subscribers and close on ten million video views – not bad!

I’m sure there will be many other science communicators/videographers/groupies at VidCon – if you’re going to be there, drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter and we’ll see what we can do about getting folks together.

YouTube is becoming an increasingly powerful medium for engaging teens and others in science.  But the success stories are arising from the grass roots community rather than engineered from the top down. This is what makes the medium and the culture surrounding it so intriguing and exciting.  And thanks to my daughter, I’ll have another chance to explore this weird and wonderful world in a few days’ time.  I might even have the time to post the odd tweet while I’m tracking down YouTube celebs (I still need a cheat sheet to let me know who the celebs are!) and meeting up with fellow YouTube/SciComms geeks!

Update June 20 – I missed Henry Reich (minutephysics) from the list of science communicators participating in VidCon – not sure how that happened!  Who else have I missed?

Top ten reasons professors become chairs!

A good colleague sent these to me the other day – I think I’m #1, but I wouldn’t rule out #7!

Top Ten Reasons Professors Become Chairs*

10.  Because you don’t want someone else to do it, even though you don’t.

9.  Because you’re burned out teaching the same thing over and over again for 20 years and writing articles two people in the whole country read.

8.  For the money.

7.  For the petty power, having, in middle age, experienced a precipitous decline… and needing an alternative thrill.

6.  Because you lack imagination and can’t think of anything better and more original to do.

5.  Because you have imagination and fantasize about all the things you will do back to your peers that they did to you while they were chair.

4.  Because some dean made you an offer you can’t refuse.

3.  Because your peers elect you to slow down your rate-busting activity by loading you up with administrative trivia.

2.  Because your peers elect you, thinking you are useless at research and teaching and this way you can at least fill out administrative reports.

1.  because you temporarily became insane, forgetting why you came into academics in the first place, momentarily in a state of confusion, mistaking your college or university for General Motors or Microsoft, thinking you will climb the ladder.

*From Chairing an Academic Department by Walter Gmelch and Val. D. Miskin, Atwood Publishing, Madison, Wisconsin 2004

Fool for a year!

Fool!  At least that was what came out of my wife’s mouth as we were discussing my latest failure to say “no!”  In this case, it was a request to take over as Interim Chair of the University of Michigan School of Public Health Environmental Health Sciences Department.

You know that feeling where volunteers are asked for and before you know it everyone else has taken a step back?  It wasn’t really like that, but with the current Chair Howard Hu moving onto bigger and better things at the University of Toronto, I did find myself unexpectedly in the firing line.

All joking aside, this is a tremendous opportunity to work with a great department and build on the solid foundation laid by my predecessors.  The appointment is just for a year while plans are laid for a more permanent incumbent (on my insistence – one day I hope to get a life!), but over the next twelve months there are exciting plans to further strengthen the department’s research, education and translation programs.  I’m also taking over leadership of the department at a time when we are looking to re-frame environmental health science within the broad context of human-environment interactions and their consequences.  This is a tremendously exciting point in the department’s history as we develop powerful synergies within a highly interdisciplinary department to address complex health challenges from a science perspective.

In the meantime, I will still be directing the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, and trying my best to write here and elsewhere about interesting stuff.  But this in particular was the source of my wife’s derision.  When I asked her whether I should refer to my self as “Interim Chair or simply “Chair”, she replied “fool”!

Well, I guess it’s just fool for a year.

Communicating about communicating science at the National Academies

I‘ve just spent the last two days at the National Academies of Science listening to a long strong of folks talk about the Science of Science Communication.  It was a bit of a guilty pleasure for me as I wasn’t a speaker and so could just kick back and listen – but I did get a couple of questions in. The meeting was in the series of Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia that the National Academies organize each year – meetings designed to cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries.  And in this respect the colloquium was certainly a success, bringing together over 400 participants from a wide range of disciplines to discuss empirical research on the nature, practice and effectiveness of science communication.

Although there was plenty of room for improvement in the scope and execution of the colloquium (as was amply commented on in the Twitter stream accompanying the event*), I must confess that I did find the meeting both useful and enjoyable – mainly because it prompted me to start thinking again about several aspects of science communication that I’ve pushed to one side as a myriad other things have slid onto my plate.  Summarizing the meeting as I type this (and wait for a delayed flight back to Michigan) is largely beyond my tired brain at this point – I still need to take time to digest much of the stuff that was presented.  But I would encourage you to check out the videos of the talks, which have been posted here.  That said, it’s worth noting three things that struck me as I listened to the presenters:

It’s important that the National Academies of Science are taking the study of science communication (and its practice) seriously.  Inviting a bunch of social scientists into the National Academies – and into a high profile colloquium like this – was a big deal.  And irrespective of the meeting’s content, it flags a commitment to work closely with researchers studying science communication and decision analysis to better ensure informed and effective communication strategies and practice.  Given the substantial interest in the colloquium – on the web as well as at the meeting itself – I hope that the National Academies build on this and continue to engage fully in this area.

Moving forward, there needs to be more engagement between science communication researchers and practitioners.  Practitioners of science communication – and the practical insight they bring – were notable by their absence (in the main) from the colloquium program.  If the conversation around empirical research is to connect with effective practice, there must be better integration of these two communities.

Better mechanisms of establishing a science communication agenda are needed.  Climate change dominated the conversation over the past two days – perhaps understandably.  But it’s not the only issue that depends on effective science communication.  Issues such as the water-food-energy nexus, chronic exposure to low level synthetic chemicals, non-communicable disease, even the current global economic crisis, and many others, need to be part of the science communication agenda.  Instead, there is a sense that researchers and practitioners are attracted to the bright shiny issues that attract (or are engineered to attract) people’s attention, while overlooking many less eye catching but equally important issues.  Moving forward, it would be good to see more systematic approaches to identifying where science communication research and practice is focused.

There’s an awful lot more that could be said about the meeting, but at this point I will leave this to others, and end by thanking the organizers for a stimulating two days.

*The extensive Twitter chatter associated with the meeting (using the hashtag #sackler) picked up on poor coverage of digital communication, a lack of science communication practitioners in the program,  and a preponderance of while middle class (and beyond) men in the presenters lineup.  But what really bugged me – and was the subject of much online derision – was that internet access at the meeting was so poor that in-person attendees struggled to either contribute to the online discussion or submit questions – which were supposed to be sent in via email!  A bit of a faux pas for a meeting on communication!

Think Design – an alternative take on nanotech (in 11 minutes!)

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a “TED style talk” on nanotechnology for the University of Michigan Environmental Health Sciences department 125th anniversary.  What they got was a short talk on “thinking small”:

The other talks in the series are also worth checking out – covering topics as diverse as epigenetics, cancer, exposure science, obesity, endocrine disruptors, global health and mercury in the environment.  Watch them here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF87730C0E0C26FEA