The Blog

Want to uniquely inspire kids about science

Between April 25 – May 6, I’m A Scientist USA will once again be pitting some of the country’s smartest young scientists against middle and high school kids, in the quest to be the Last Scientist Standing. If you’re up for the challenge, you have until April 4 to throw your hat into the ring! I’m A Scientist is an online competition that allows school kids of all backgrounds and abilities to engage with scientists in ways that they would never usually have the chance to.  It’s open to scientists from academia, industry and the public sector. I’m admittedly a little biased here as a member of the I’m A Scientist USA Advisory Board, and a winner in the original UK competition (where it all started). That said, I would rank this as one of the most exciting, rewarding and transformative experiences you can take part in if you’re a young scientist with a passion for inspiring others – especially middle and high school students. Why I’m A Scientist is different What makes I’m A Scientist different from many other “communication opportunities” is that the kids call the shots – with a little help from their teachers and the I’m A Scientist team. As a contestant (and be warned – competition’s fierce to get accepted) – you are placed in a “zone” with four other scientists (“the competition”), and assigned to a group of school classes. Over the competition’s two weeks, your kids (and you’ll get to know some of them pretty well), post questions to the zone, sometimes directing them to you personally.  These can be about pretty much anything – from why’s the sky blue, to what makes a black hole, to what do you do all day (and even what’s your favorite food). You’ll also have a few incredibly intense live chats with

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Rethinking Twitter

A few weeks ago, I decided to take a bit of a vacation from Twitter.  I wanted some time to chew over my frustrations over the emerging Twitter culture, and get my head around whether I wanted to be a part of this community, and if so, how to best to participate and engage. While I suspect hardly anyone noticed my absence, I did miss Twitter  – maybe not surprisingly as I’ve been hanging out on the platform for several years now. Not hanging out on Twitter, I found myself less connected to what’s going on, and I missed being able to talk about and engage on things that grabbed my interest. At the same time, taking a break from the snark, gossip and social pressure that pervades Twitter felt really good. As a result I’ve decided to make some changes in how I use Twitter as I end the “vacation” – something I should probably have done some time ago. Here’s what I ended up with: Tweeting Tweet about cool stuff around science, technology, and society Tweet about interesting stuff your colleagues, students and friends are doing Tweet about your own work – but not too much Tweet about random stuff that interests and intrigues you, and makes you smile Retweet tweets about cool stuff around science, technology, and society Retweet tweets about random stuff that interests and intrigues you, and makes you smile Retweet generously tweets from colleagues, students, friends, and followers   Twitter Behavior Treat others with respect Engage generously Promote civil dialog Promote a culture of collegiality, inclusiveness, and engagement Don’t tweet or retweet critical or potentially hurtful comments about individuals Don’t get involved in twitter shaming Don’t block people unless they are extremely and consistently offensive Don’t be an ass If you are an ass, fix it!   Following others Follow people who engage positively with you Follow

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Benjamin Franklin and his ipad #3 750x400

Why do people read science blogs? Surprisingly, we don’t have a good answer to this.  There’s a vibrant online community of people blogging about science, and talking about blogging about science, and blogging about blogging and talking about science.  But we don’t know that much about the people that science blogs and bloggers set out to serve. This is a problem from a science communication perspective, because if we don’t know who we’re engaging, and why they’re engaged, it’s very difficult to communicate effectively. To address this rather vital knowledge gap, Dr. Paige Jarreau – one of the foremost researchers on science blogging – has a plan.  Working with 60 bloggers, she will be conducting a large-scale survey of science blog readers to map out who reads these blogs, and why. To my knowledge, it’ll be the largest systematic survey of it’s type, and will provide extremely valuable insights into the effectiveness of science blogging as a way of communicating and engaging on science with non-expert audiences, as well as indicating how science blogging can become an even more effective communication platform.  However, there is a catch. Research costs money, and this project is no exception.  Rather brilliantly though, Paige is raising some of the money needed for the study through crowdfunding. What excites me about this is that it gives the online science community the chance to have skin in the game.  It enables community members to demonstrate their support for, and dedication to, the effective communication of science through blogs.  And it enables the data collection and analysis that will help them better-achieve their science communication aims. And of course, being a science-based community, they understand the importance of data and evidence in guiding decisions and actions, so there’s a rather elegant symmetry to them supporting the work that will generate the data that helps them in their work.

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Here’s a bit of trivia: with the 4000 character limit on comments on the National Nanotechnology Initiative Draft Strategic Plan, you might as well ditch the official portal, and tweet your comments to the Office of Science and Technology Policy – 28 tweets would do it! As you can probably guess, I’ve just been compiling my response to the request for comments on the current NNI strategic plan, and have been just a little frustrated by the 4000 character limit.  This includes spaces by the way.  And formatting characters – I had to delete any formatting (bold headings for instance) to get below the limit. However, the comments – brief as they are – are completed and submitted.  If you’re interested, they are posted below – all 3929 characters. The comment period on the strategic plan closes at 11:59 PM on November 30th – still time to get your voice heard, as long as you can do it in 4000 characters or less. The draft strategic plan can be downloaded from here, and the comments portal can be accessed here. ____________________________________ My submission:

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Complete the following: Setting: A well known and sometimes off-beat technology commentator explores new breakthroughs on a popular TV science and tech show. Story: Spiders’ silk is incredibly strong, but in short supply (ever tried harvesting silk from a spider?). So why not take the gene responsible for making spider silk, and splice it into a goat? The result: goats that produce milk laced with spider silk-protein. All you have to do then is extract the protein from the milk and spin it into silk and hey presto – a plentiful supply of a super-strong, incredibly versatile, “natural” material. How should the story end? There’s a serious point to this question, which I’ll come back to later.  For now though, I’m intrigued as to how people think the story should conclude – remembering this is a TV show for a broad audience. The spider/goat stuff is real btw – check out this snippet from the US National Science Foundation. [Update 11/2/10 – the follow-up blog to this piece has just been posted]

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Now that I’ve had some time to get to grips with my new position as Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, I thought it was high time I started letting people know something about where the Center will be heading over the next few years.  Cross-posted on the Risk Science Center’s home page, here’s a flavor of where we’re going: Risk is often treated as a four-letter word, or an embarrassing relative – something distasteful that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite society. Yet the reality is that a clear understanding of risk and how to deal with it is essential to every aspect of our lives. The past hundred years have left us a horrifying legacy of what goes wrong when people ignore risks, or fail to identify, access and manage them appropriately, or aren’t equipped to make informed decisions as new potential issues arise. And the challenges are only going to get tougher in today’s increasingly technology-dependent, interconnected and resource-constrained world. Without a doubt, if we are to build a sustainable future in the 21st century, we need to rethink our approach to risk. We need integrative, cross-disciplinary approaches to understanding and managing risks that are inclusive of all stakeholders. We need to push the process of identifying and addressing potential risks up-stream in the innovation process. And we need to equip everyone from citizens to CEO’s and journalists to policy makers to make informed decisions in the face of increasing uncertainty and complexity. When I accepted the directorship of the Risk Science Center earlier this year, it was this forward-looking challenge that was uppermost in my mind…

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I couldn’t resist finishing the August in the Archives series with this piece on “silent rave” syndrome, which I am sad to say still seems to inflict the emerging technologies community! Originally posted October 5 2008 The silent rave might seem a rather bizarre social phenomenon; a group of strangers converging in a public place and dancing to their own individual iPod soundtracks.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that the emerging technology community has been indulging in the new tech-equivalent of silent raves for some time now. These suspicions are probably the delusional by-product of jetlag.  But traveling back from the latest in a long line of multi-stakeholder nanotechnology meetings last week, the analogy hit a chord…

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I love books – the old fashioned kind, printed with ink on paper.  As a kid, books were my source of education, inspiration and entertainment.  As an adult, I still find there’s something oddly satisfying about picking up a sheaf of printed and bound pages and immersing myself in them. So it’s perhaps not surprising that, when it came to using my prize money from I’m A Scientist, get Me Out Of Here, I ended up turning to books.

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With apologies to Chris Mooney, and all the many scientists that really do get the need to listen to people.  And also with a rather large tongue in my cheek: Dear Mr Mooney, I’ve been way too busy this week doing important sciency stuff to engage with the trivialities of the popular press.  But this morning I stumbled across your protestations in last Sunday’s Washington Post. You know – the ones about scientists not listening enough to the public? Choke? I’m still trying to remove bits of masticated Cheerios from my polyester labcoat! Mr. Mooney, which planet are you on?!  Haven’t you realized yet that the public are just a bunch of raving loonies, obsessed with their own views and impervious to reason? What on earth would justify me listening to their misinformed and irrelevant bleating?

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Today was a tough day on I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here – three live chats almost back to back, followed by the first evictions.  And believe me – even though I live to fight another day, the evictions were traumatic!  But more of that below.  At the end of a long day, I mainly wanted to pull together a few notes on the event as it stands at the moment.

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The way science is taught, the way it’s portrayed on TV and in the press, he way it’s promoted by science-advocates and science bloggers, often seems to adhere to a rather pompous and hubristic view of science as the ultimate bastion of truth and certainty.  So it’s been rather refreshing this week to see a group of real-world scientists shattering this image in the on-line event I’m A  Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!

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It’s a quarter to one in the morning Eastern Time, and I’ve just polished off the last question of the day on I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!  I should be heading off to bed, but I wanted to capture some initial thoughts on this exercise first. I’ve lost count of how many questions I’ve answered today – hundreds it seem (although it’s probably less).  I did see a note come round earlier that 1000 questions have already been answered by the team of scientists – and it’s just the first day. Watching the reactions of my fellow contestants on Twitter, I think we’ve all had the same experience – gobsmacked by the volume and depth of the questions, followed by a rather rapid recalibration of how we go about answering them!

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If you want to participate in the rather fab science event I’m A Scientist, Get me Out Of Here I’m afraid you are out of luck – unless you happen to be one of the 100 scientists and 8000 teenagers taking part. But you can still get a thrill from watching the competition unfold on-line while experiencing science as a spectator sport as you’ve never seen it before! And believe me, this is an event you’re not going to want to miss – especially if you have any interest whatsoever in engaging teenagers in science. So, if you want to watch the fun, where do you begin? Here are three ways you might start:

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Reading the Twitter feeds, it seems that a number of scientists participating in I’m A Scientist, Get me Out of Here have struggled with their profiles.  It’s one thing to design an elegant experiment or write a smart paper – but describing yourself in three words or telling a joke that’s actually funny isn’t something most PhD’s prepare you for! However, the participants have risen to the challenge admirably, and most profiles are up now – just in time for the web site going live to teachers. Browsing through the profiles, there are some pretty smart and interesting people here – the competition’s going to be tough!  Here are just a few entries that caught my eye:

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A guest blog by Hilary Sutcliffe, Director of MATTER, a UK think tank which explores how new technologies can work for us all. The other day, I wrote a piece on the implications of synthetic biology where I  suggested that we “need to place discussions on a science basis, and not get over-distracted by ethical hand-wringing.”  It was a bit of a provocative statement – intentionally so – so I was pleased to see Hilary Sutcliffe pick up on it in the comments and push back against the implication that the ethics of synbio might not be as important as some think.  Given the relevance of her comments, I thought they deserved their own guest blog – so here they are – AM. “Ethical hand-wringing”?  Hmm, I don’t think you were quite meaning this as I have interpreted it Andrew, but I have to disagree with your point in your Synthetic Biology Blog on the ethical hand-wringing, I think we should be distracting ourselves quite a lot with Ethical Hand-Wringing while the scientists are getting on with creating their new organisms, especially considering ‘what we understand is secondary to what we can do’, as you said. I was at the Royal Society’s Synthetic Biology Stakeholder meeting which was shown by BBC Newsnight last week, (my Mum and I spotted me fleetingly in the corner!) and this and other recent synbio events gave me many a déjà vu moment – had I accidentally gone to a nano meeting? There are many similarities between the development of genetic modification (GM) and nanotechnologies which can be learned in the development of synthetic biology.  Time is of the essence – GM and nano were pretty much already in the shops when we started to take action, but here perhaps we can get our act

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I can’t sleep, I’m distracted, I keep breaking out in a cold sweat.  And the reason?  I have a deceptively simple question going my head – and I don’t know the answer! The question… well, I’ll come to that in a minute.  I’d rather put the moment of embarrassment off for at least a few more lines – because rest assured, I will embarrass myself.   But let me first back up a little…

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Language is often seen as a barrier to communication.  But sometimes it provides a valuable buffer between hearing, understanding and responding, and allows unique perspectives that are often drowned out to be heard. A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by Brazilian TV presenter Luís Fernando Silva Pinto for the TV Globo program Ciência & Tecnologia on nanotechnology’s broader social and scientific implications.  As you would expect, when the documentary came out this week in Brazil, my very English segments were surrounded by a sea of Portuguese.  And having had a very “proper” English upbringing (i.e. I’m appallingly bad with other languages), I was completely at sea when it came to understanding how my comments were being framed. Looking for some enlightenment, I asked the Brazilian-born Portuguese journalist Andréia Azevedo Soares (currently on sabbatical at Imperial College in London) for some help in getting a sense of what was being said in the program.  What I got back was a wonderfully candid running commentary on her response to the documentary.

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A guest blog by Sophia Collins, producer of the on-line teen science event “I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here!” “itz hometime but we want to stay and ask questions” These are the words of a 14 year old student, at a school in inner-city London. The school has some of the poorest academic results in the school district, well below the national average. And yet a classroom science activity had the students so gripped that when the bell went for the end of the school day, they insisted on staying for another 15 minutes to ask more questions.

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

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