26 February 2007

Page turns to science

Researchers of all ages continue to complain that anyone who gets involved in popularising science can end up on the receiving end of sniffy comments from colleagues who see such activities as at best a distraction from real work, and at worst dumbing down. The naysayers don't quite say the same thing about teaching, but that is probably only because to come out of that particular closet would be to court professional death. After all, education is in the job spec and is supposed to be as important as research.

So there isn't likely to be much support for an idea put forward by Larry Page, whose main claim to fame is that he set up Google. Page put forward his ideas at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS has put out a News Release on Page's ideas, along with a video of the presentation, some of them would cause fits among the opponents of public dissemination.

Take the suggestion, as reported in the release, of "tying tenure and grant money to the media impact of research". Can you imagine it? Along with details of what you have done over the years, you have to include newspaper clippings about your earlier projects.

They haven't gone that far, but in the UK at least, some of the public bodies that fund research require recipients to devote some of their efforts to Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST). This seems to be influencing at least some scientists.

I recently helped run a two hour session on dealing with the media for young and mid-career scientists at Sussex University. One of the people who attended said that she was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that she should join in the PEST game. As well as the growing pressure from research funders, she also thought that being more visible might get people to take her research more seriously, buried as it usually is in obscure journals.

It wasn't just potential the fame and glory, or even the need to keep the grant income flowing, that interested her. Working as she did on important issues for youngsters with a disability, she felt that the people who could pick up her ideas and use it needed to understand what she does.

This may be some way from Larry Page's arguments, but it is certainly a case worth considering, especially if you are of the view that most of the science writers who write for large audiences ignore this sort of thing in favour of the usual safe stories.

05 February 2007

The ethics of journals

The boom in nanotechnology means that there is now a rush to get out journals that feed on the surrounding industry of ethics and safety. Springer joins the race going with a new journal, NanoEthics: Ethics for Technologies that Converge at the Nanoscale. Crazy title. Guess they have to make money before the move to open access puts commercial journals put of business.

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04 February 2007

The rules of journalism

A blogger withe twee name of Sans Serif (or is it sans serif?) has come up with 12 and a half rules to be a good journalist. Interesting and amusing as they may be, they aren't really rules so much as slogans or aspirations.

Maybe it is the way they are billed that suggests this. After all, what is the difference between "Chase Your Dream" and "Do What You Love"?

In among this laudable but probably useless stuff – it is after all saying that it takes a particular personality type to be a journalist – there is also the odd practical tip of real value. I particularly like the suggestion "Don’t Be The Loyal Member Of Any Party, Group, Club, NGO". In effect, this is saying be a sceptic.

That advice is also a key to the difference between journalists an writers, and why it is hard to be both. Writers can use their ability to string words together to good effect, to persuade readers to buy a line.

Interestingly, sans serif's rules say nothing on technical things, like learning how to write or to sell articles, something that you do even if you are not a freelance journalist. No reason why rules should cover that sort of territory. It is just that this is the sort of question asked by people who want to get into the business.

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03 February 2007

Portuguese science tackles an attitude problem

They may not have quite the same planet sized chip on their shoulders as engineers, who are for ever complaining that people confuse them with the mechanics and technicians who mend vacuum, cleaners, but scientists the world over like to complain of their lot. It seems that in Portugal they really do have something to moan about. An article in The Scientist, A Portuguese Science Association Reaches Out, kicks off with the statement that "Portugal is a country where being a scientist is still not considered a career by most of its population and it's a place where funding for research comes almost exclusively from government sources."

Back in November 2004 a group of young life scientists decided to do something about this and set up the Associação Viver a Ciência (VaC). Their idea is to do something about attitudes to science in Portugal. And they are doing this on a shoestring. The annual budget of an €140,000 or so wouldn't buy one of those studies of the subject that we go in for in the UK.

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02 February 2007

Royal let down on climate change

Anyone who was hoping for something substantial in the way of a response from the Royal Society on today's IPCC report on climate change is in for a disappointment. We mention this only because they trailed their response earlier today in the puzzlingly content free press release we've already mentioned. Now that we have it, we find that despite the title, A time for action on climate change, it is actually less outspoken than the statements made by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir David King.

The bottom line is that "We need both to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Those who would claim otherwise can no longer use science as a basis for their argument." Well, I never.

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Royal Society winds up the excitement

The poor old Royal Society has sunk to new depths of pointlessness in its latest "press release". Like everyone they are keen to climb on the bandwagon shoved down the hill today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So we get to read the Royal Society pre IPCC report statement.

They have persuaded Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, to say: "The IPCC is the world's leading authority on climate change and its latest report will provide a comprehensive picture of the latest scientific understanding on the issue."

Er, yes. Maybe the point of this exercise is to alert all those slavering hacks to the fact that "The Royal Society will be issuing a short statement in reaction to the report on Friday".

Most of the writers who will cover the report are clearly desperately short of people they can talk to.

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