Engaging with Science Blogs: Scientists, Policymakers and Bloggers Weigh in at CPSC

By Lisa Willemse and Stephanne Taylor **

** This post was a collaborative effort among the Science Borealis CSPC panelists Amelia Buchanan, Chris Buddle, Sabrina Doyle, Paul Dufour, and moderator Brian Owens and includes input from the session attendees. 

The Canadian Science Policy Conference, held in Ottawa on November 25-27 offered beleaguered scientists a refreshing and encouraging message of hope. As reported by the media, one major reason for this was the presence of Honourable Kirsty Duncan, the newly appointed Science Minister. Duncan’s lively address highlighted the contents of her Mandate Letter and other priorities, resulting in spontaneous and frequent applause.

“I come from your world. I want you to know that I am committed to collaboration and openness.” — Hon. Kirsty Duncan (CSPC 2015)

In a similarly optimistic vein, our science blogging session held on the last day of the conference sought to identify areas in which science policy, scientists, and the public could find common ground for sharing ideas and increasing engagement.

Science Borealis developed the session as a workshop in which the panel and attendees would discuss best practices in blogging in an open, un-conference format. Everyone’s contributions would be recorded and synthesized into this post. To kick off the conversation we  asked the overarching question:

How can science blogs better be used, or used in new ways to influence science policy and how can Canadians use them to effectively participate in policy debates?

In the interest of sparking debate and including a broad perspective we selected a panel of scientists, bloggers and policymakers. From their conversation with each other and our audience the following perspectives emerged:

The Scientist Blogger — Speaking to the Curious

Not all scientists have the ability and willingness to engage in blogging and other forms of online media as part of their communications activities. Panelist Dr. Chris Buddle, a field biologist and ecologist at McGill University, pointed to this in his opening statement, noting that a lack of outreach by some scientists reinforces the divide between science and the public, and that blogging presents an opportunity to skip over barriers and speak directly to the curious.  

A greater challenge in academia is a lack of support for outreach and communication more broadly. This must be addressed within the institutions themselves. This was illustrated by one participant who said that a major deterrent for academics to blog is the “Sagan effect,” where scientists who communicate and popularize science are viewed negatively (and often derisively) by their colleagues.

This attitude is slowly shifting within academia, but the change is slow and inconsistent across fields. For substantial progress to be made, the positive impacts of blogs/social media need to be clearly visible, not merely in terms of community development and prestige, but also in increased journal citations and formalized links from these communities to policy.

Gaining Public Trust — Truth, Passion and Plain Language

Blogs are often considered a voice for the masses, since anyone with an opinion and an internet connection can do it. However, the differences between a good blog and a less effective blog can be hard to quantify. This was seen as a potential impediment to effective dialogue, particularly if misinformation is championed by a person or group for ideological reasons, and whose tactics might also include selective interpretation of evidence or flawed/non-existent science.

Science blogging has ample shares of both excellence and quackery. Panelist Paul Dufour, a policy analyst and avid consumer of online media, likened blogs to Wikipedia entries, where readers must bring their own “crap detectors”. But the general consensus among the panel and the audience was that the better blogs will gain and maintain a following, while those which are wildly wrong, inconsistent, or lack other key traits as listed by the panelists – passion, personality, compelling story, plain language – will fail.

Just having a blog that meets the prerequisites does not guarantee success, however. Promotion is as much a part of the process of engagement as is crafting each post. Social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram are all good companions to blogs and offer significant opportunity for conversation, community-building and debate.

It was also noted that blogs will never reach all public audiences, but other methods of communications including video (vlogging), podcasts, and other multimedia can broaden the reach of a blog, and build a wider audience.   

 

Reaching Policymakers — Aim and Shoot Your Message

Several attendees who represented policy/government bodies said that they do, in fact, watch science blogs closely and do not necessarily view them the same way they do mainstream media. They look to science blogs to ask big, broad questions, to identify grassroots movements that could be brought into policy debates, and to identify key issues in need of further research. To be effective in these ways, the blogs need to be credible. They should present research in narrative, with implications for society rather than a set of uncontextualized data. And they have to be on the policymaker’s radar.

Similar to acquiring a public audience, getting a science blog onto the screen of a policymaker takes additional work, particularly since scientists and policymakers do not necessary belong to similar online communities.

Suggestions for tackling this challenge included creating a database of all MPs or government officials of interest, which includes political and personal interests as well as handles for all of their social media accounts.

When a blog post or other online media is created, it becomes an easy task to identify potential policy targets and direct tweets or other social media messaging to them. Using this method, Genome Alberta was able to garner attention, direct replies and/or retweets from the targeted MPs and MLAs.

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Our original goal was to write a collaborative blog post about the connections between science blogging and policymakers, but this proved awkward to do on the floor.  Instead, we had an organic, wide-ranging conversation with the audience, which was ultimately more productive than sticking to our initial script.

It’s rare to have science bloggers and science policymakers in the same room, and we’re grateful to the audience for sharing their insights and experiences from both the blogging and policy worlds. There is still substantial work to be done to bridge the gap between science bloggers and policymakers, but with that comes substantial opportunity, and we look forward to continuing the conversation.

Science Borealis would like to thank our panelists: Amelia Buchanan, Chris Buddle, Sabrina Doyle, Paul Dufour and Lisa Willemse, and our session moderator, Brian Owens, as well as the attendees in this session. Our panelists and moderator all contributed to this post.

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