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.
Mind The Science Gap was an experiment in using social media for training science-based graduates to communicate more effectively. And it was a great success. Each time I’ve run the course, I’ve had the privilege of watching a small cohort of public health graduate students sharpen their communication skills and become adept at making complex science accessible to a wide audience. Some have had a steep learning curve to climb, but have developed an invaluable communications skill set. Others have blossomed as smart and engaging communicators. And a few have quite simply blown me away with their ability to make complex science accessible and relevant.
The posts on Mind The Science Gap are a goldmine of writing on an incredibly wide range of subjects. We went where few public health blogs have been before – including the safety of marijuana, hydraulic fracking, noise and health impact, and an unforgettable visual depiction of rectal massage as a cure for hiccoughs! (these are, after all, public health students) And we did it with style. In many cases the posts and the comments that follow them are also a case study in learning the ropes of public health-focused science communication.
The premise of the course – and the blog – was that talented graduate students learn how to be effective science communicators extremely fast when working to a deadline and when their writing is fully open to public scrutiny – with no editorial safety net. It’s a premise that worked far better than I expected over the course of the past two years.
But it’s a premise that only works if people read the posts, and comment on them!
The first couple of times we ran the course, reader engagement was great. We had significant pickup, good hit rates (around 2000 page views per day when things got going), and exchanges in the post comments that helped the students refine their craft. This was helped by a dedicated group of followers commenting and reposting on Twitter and Facebook, together with people like the former Blogs editor at Scientific American Bora Zivkovic who bent over over backward to promote and support the students.
But over this last semester the readership has been down, and the engagement through comments has been virtually non-existent.
This isn’t surprising – everyone’s busy. It takes dedication to read and comment on ten posts a week (believe me, I know – each post gets a detailed analysis from me). And if you are a science communicator yourself – busy writing about science and the business of doing science – it’s not easy to find the time to support and encourage the next generation of science communicators. But it does mean that there is no longer the community/reader mentorship that Mind The Science Gap depends on so much.
However, while dwindling engagement with the students is a contributing factor to the course ending, it was also precipitated by my inability to make 24 hours a day look more like 30. It always was really tough putting the hours in to run the course on top of everything else. Now the “everything else” has eaten up even that window of availability.
I’m sad to see the course go – quite gutted actually. It was an edge-of-the-seat experiment that worked, and served an important purpose. And when smart students began emerging as smart writers, it was exhilarating.
I also happen to think that an ability to communicate complex ideas to others in a way that they understand is extremely important. It empowers people to make decisions that benefit their health and wellbeing. It helps them make decisions that improve the lives of others. And it enables them to see the world in a new light.
We need good science communicators. Mind The Science Gap helped train some great ones. Hopefully as it winds down, other initiatives will spring up to fill the education gap that is left – and not just here in the University of Michigan School of Public Health, but elsewhere as well.