ScienceOnline2011 – interview with David Wescott

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today we chat with Dave Wescott (@wescott1)

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I’ve worked at a big PR firm for over 8 years. I grew up in Boston and I now live in Durham NC. If you’re talking about my philosophy about science communication, I’m more in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s camp than, say, Richard Dawkins’ camp, though I can see the value in both approaches. Politically I’m decidedly left-of-center. My background isn’t in science – it’s in politics, health care management, and strategic communications.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

The noteworthy moments in my career focus on the convergence of communities and ideas. When I worked for a public hospital’s pediatrics department in Boston, I organized a group of health care providers to lobby state legislators for better child nutrition provisions in the state welfare law. When I worked for Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) I focused on things like the intersection of intellectual property and global health, or business incubation and higher education, or energy and economic justice. Now that I work in public relations, I bring mom bloggers on tours of vaccine facilities and connect environmental bloggers with large energy companies. I’ve also done a lot of work in crisis communications – I once led a conference call discussing a plane crash while standing a few hundred feet from a burning train wreck.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

My true passion is my family. Boston Red Sox baseball is a big deal, too. Beyond that, I want to forge stronger ties between science bloggers and mom bloggers. Online moms have extraordinary power – far more than most people realize. Companies listen to them. Policy makers listen to them. Moms make the overwhelming majority of decisions in life – what to buy, who to vote for, when to get health care, and so on. They do most of the work. They do most of the child-rearing. If moms are making decisions based on the right information and with the right context – the kind of context you can get from science bloggers – the world will be a much better place.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

Media convergence. I love watching science writers who have influence in multiple channels – print, broadcast, and online. To me, effective communication is about being where the people are. I’m also interested in developing new ideas of outreach to people who may not have an active interest in science but may develop one if they get the right information under the right circumstances. Darlene Cavalier has been very kind to me in this regard – she lets me write a “best of the science blogosphere” post at Science Cheerleader, where the readership tends to be kids and moms.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

Blogging is central to my job. I’m a VP in social media for my company and helped establish the practice. As for social networking tools I find Twitter to be very effective. My favorite tool, however, is Delicious – I find enormous power in its simplicity. Organizing and sharing links is an essential task when your job involves interacting with multiple online communities. I’m really upset that Yahoo! may be abandoning Delicious soon.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I’ve known about science blogs for a long time, but I really got into them after drinking with Jonathan Gitlin at Ars Technica. That dude is brilliant with a capital SMART. I met Jonathan and his wife Elle (also brilliant) at a Drinking Liberally event in Lexington, Kentucky a few years ago and I’ve followed his stuff ever since. He told me about ScienceOnline, and now I’m hooked. I read a ton now but I’m partial to Deborah Blum, Jason Goldman, Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum, and Maryn McKenna. I have a young son, so David Orr’s Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs is a must. (More dinosaur pics, please!)

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

I loved the panel on parenting and science blogging – the panelists were outstanding. I did notice that very few people in the room read parenting blogs, however. I’d love to see a panel about outreach to other online communities. The next logical step for science bloggers and science blogging networks is to expand the audience – that will require stepping out of a comfort zone for many.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, or to your science reading and writing?

The one quote that still resonates with me from #scio11 came from Steve Silberman at the panel on “keepers of the bullshit filter.” He said you can’t call bullshit on someone if you’re anonymous. I know this is a sensitive topic for many in the science blogsophere, and some of my favorite science bloggers don’t use their names. But as a PR guy with a political background it’s so important. It goes to the heart of credibility. It drives me nuts when I see so many political ads out there funded by people who don’t want you to know who they are. If I tried to hide my identity or my interests while speaking for a client I’d be slaughtered for it, and rightfully so. If you want to influence people with your writing, I think it’s important to be transparent and to own your words.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again soon, and at ScienceOnline2012 in January.

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