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Science On the Web and In the Flesh

Posted Feb 04 2013 1:46pm

Thoughts on the ScienceOnline2013 conference.

As a blogger, I write about the science-based investigation of drugs and addiction—but I am not a scientist. Far from it. My educational background is in the Liberal Arts and the Humanities, with a degree in journalism and mass communications. I cover science, and I talk to scientists, but I don’t DO science. And in fact, there is often an adversarial relationship between a journalist and the people a journalist writes about.

A remarkable conference held annually in the Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle, hosted by North Carolina State, attempts to do something about this divide by throwing together 450 bloggers, journalists, editors, scientists, science teachers, public information officers, and science artists—plus a smattering of entrepreneurs, web developers, government workers, librarians, literary agents, and all-around gadflies. A few years ago, a troika of innovative thinkers in the Raleigh area—Boris Zivkovic, Anton Zuiker, and Karyn Traphagen—put together what became the annual ScienceOnline conference. They realized that science writers and scientists were on the same team, and that their mutual business was the effective communication of scientific and evidence-based knowledge. It may sound obvious, but in actual practice, it isn’t.

However, the rise of online science communication means that everybody is talking to everybody else all the time, and that the divide separating the writer from the scientist is permeable under the right conditions. The “Unconference,” as ScienceOnline quickly became known, features a collaborative style of creating and moderating panel sessions—sessions in which, wonder of wonders, the audience is expected to participate as much as the panel moderators. Some panels become more like casual group bullshit sessions than formal laser-pointer presentations by a moderator doing a monologue. (Not that some moderators don’t lapse into monologues, but usually those offenders are professors, so we must forgive them.)

I hate conferences, and generally avoid them. But ScienceOnline caught my interest due to the way it invokes a variety of subtle structures and cues to bring a relaxed, improvisatory, conversational tone to the 4-day event. To begin with, attendance is held to 450 people, who apply on a first-come, first-served basis. Despite pressure to expand as the popularity of the conference has grown, the organizers have chosen instead to encourage Watch Parties in cities around the world. In addition, a constant stream of conference information courses through online social media for months before and after the actual event. Rather than leading to a feeling of exclusivity, this approach puts everyone on an equal footing, scrambling like rock fans trying to score a ticket to a good show before they sell out.

Upon arrival, you find that your standard conference badge has your name on it—but no job title, institutional affiliation, or any other outright clue to whatever the hell it is that you do for a living. In place of that is your Twitter handle, since this conference pulls heavily from a group that is already well entrenched online. Some people know each other; some people are there for the first time, like any conference. Without the obvious indications of rank and hierarchy of employment, people will be much more willing to approach people they don’t know for conversation, is the idea. It is one of the ways that the producers of the conference attempt to move the emphasis from speakers on the stage to conversations between people in the conference café, the lobby, the lounge, the bars... Like atoms banging against each other as the heat rises, attendees trade thoughts, hatch projects, land freelance assignments, and hear from other people about the one thing everyone has in common: the business of communicating the work of science to the world at large—a task that can only become more crucial with time.

The same ethos applies to the sundry sessions and panels that make up the conference. Moderators, who have cooked up the topics and ideas for the panels in group wiki sessions during the previous year, are expected to make some prefatory remarks and then starting fielding questions in order to get a sense of where the audience wants to take the subject. Of particular interest to me this year were sessions about how to be appropriately skeptical when covering scientific and medical studies, how to blog for the long haul, how to navigate the perils and pleasures of explanatory journalism, and how to use history to relate current events in science.

In the end, the conference does what it is intended to do: Provide a comfortable, optimistic environment in which a pack of nerd scientists, rogue journalists, extreme introverts, and knowledge-hungry students can shoot the shit with each other without the distractions of poster sessions and prepared presentations. That may sound like it’s a lot easier to do than it really is. Such conferences are rare indeed, and ScienceOnline2013 is a rare example of the successful blending of conference, convention, and think tank retreat. Plus it’s the only conference I’ve ever gone to where the free goodies turn out to be books. A literal stack of them. Like cocaine to a herd of hyper-literate scientists and professional writers. The registrations costs are absurdly low, the shuttle buses incredibly efficient, the wifi access unbeatable. Early figures indicate a level of coffee consumption somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 gallons per hour. And did I mention the food?

For more on the conference, go to ScienceOnline Information Central HERE.
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