ScienceOnline2010 – interview with John Timmer

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Today, I asked John Timmer from Ars Technica to answer a few questions.
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)?
Geographically, I come from New York City. I work out of a home office in Brooklyn, and do some work with two of the local biology graduate programs, helping teach students how to write grants and papers that are coherent and compelling. Most of my time is spent writing and editing science news and perspectives for Ars Technica. We don’t have a central office, which is why I get to work out of my home.
They’re a technology-focused site, so I often get asked to pitch in and cover various technology issues. A reasonable number of product introductions and announcements take place in New York, so I get to cover some of those, as well.
Philosophically, the overall goal I have for scientific communications is two-fold. One is to help people who haven’t worked in a scientific field understand how the real practice of science is probably different from the picture they got out of the US education system or from a lot of the popular press. There are very few “out of the blue” discoveries in science, or even the sort of linear idea -> hypothesis testing that science textbooks present. There’s always a history, a reliance on standardized techniques and analysis, a bit of luck and logic, good controls, etc. We try to bring that forward, make it part of the story, because it gives a more complete picture.
From a broader perspective, we try to emphasize how, even though science produces information that remains uncertain and may get revised in the future, it’s still pretty good at providing useful answers. We may get better answers in the future, but it doesn’t mean the ones we have now are wrong, or that we shouldn’t be basing decisions on scientific information. These days, sadly, we also have to emphasize that, when science is used as a basis for policy decisions, your disagreement with the policy doesn’t somehow negate the science.
Ars is a great fit for what I’d like to accomplish, since it has a reputation that was built on going a bit further into the technical details, and providing a better understanding of the development of technology.
What is your (scientific) background? Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
I have a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley, where I did fly genetics. I switched to vertebrates, mostly mice and chickens, for various developmental biology projects in about a dozen years of post-doc and non-tenure track positions. Two projects stand out to me. In one case, I helped identify the gene responsible for a mutation that was first identified in 1923, very early in the history of mouse genetics. I also got very good at electroporating DNA into the developing nervous system of chickens, while they were still in the egg. You could express genes that altered developmental fates, or put in reporters with neural-specific enhancers, and so forth, and then let the egg develop for a few additional days. It was a really fun technique.
Two labs I worked in moved to institutions outside of New York – my wife jokes that the only way they could get rid of me was to move the lab out of state – and I had to stay behind, which helped convince me that it might be time to abandon the bench. There was a year of scraping by on various freelance work before Ars hired me as a full time employee. That included a bit of teaching, a bit of grant editing, some application programming, a lot of writing. Basically, I was trying anything I was halfway good at, hoping to find something that would both keep me interested and translate into a new career. Writing won out, although I still do a bit of the other things from time to time.
timmer pic.jpg
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
I think I largely answered those questions above. Ars is taking most of my time, and it’s giving me the chance to help produce the sort of coverage that I hope provides a valuable perspective on science. So, I guess my passion is proving that it can work. From an audience perspective, that means people find it compelling and informative, and we continue to grow our readership. From a content perspective, that means we keep the quality high while providing more material for that readership. Another goal is to make sure that writing for Ars is a valuable experience for anyone who does it, which means working with the writers on ideas, writing style, etc.
If all of that’s successful, then the big-picture goal – a bit more of the public understands the process and results of science a bit better, and can recognize when what they’re seeing from other media, or policymakers, or what have you isn’t scientific – should take care of itself.
I don’t see making science seem fun and exciting as a goal. Science takes care of itself quite well in that regard.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
To a certain extent, the fact that the web could enable someone like me to engage in this sort of project without having to go through the traditional route of journalism school or media fellowships is fascinating to me. But there’s a flipside to that. The same leveling of the playing field makes it easy for people to engage in projects to distort science when it comes to things like vaccines, evolution, climate change, etc. They can attract large followings, and have audiences that treat them as credible, even authoritative voices on scientific topics.
In some cases, they’ve built that audience from literally nothing, and have never gone the route of working for an established news site or blog. I think that’s a testament to the power of providing compelling content, even if it says bad things about what people find compelling.
So I’m interested in the credibility issue. If the web has ensured that you can more or less find someone willing to say anything, you enable the audience to self-select for sources that tell them what they want to hear. How do we get an audience to self-select based on quality and accuracy, even if that means receiving information that makes them uncomfortable? It’s something that interests me because I think having an answer is critical, and I don’t think we have one yet.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?
Well, depending on who you talk to, what I do might be blogging, in which case it’s central. If what I do isn’t blogging, then I don’t blog at all. Which I think just indicates how fuzzy and irrelevant the lines are.
To a certain extent, we follow some blog conventions, and allow our authors to inject some humor, directly address the audience, and voice personal opinions about the news items we cover – in many cases, I think these add value to our coverage. At the same time, we tend to avoid pieces that are entirely opinion, limit the amount of ranting we do, and don’t get into back-and-forth arguments with other writers out there, which is fairly unbloglike. So, we’ve sort of treated blogging a bit like a prix fixe menu, and chosen the things that we think are effective and work with our audience.
Sometimes, when I do feel like ranting, i have considered starting my own blog, but the feeling quickly passes when I consider how far behind I am in all the projects I’d like to get done.
After resisting Twitter for some time, I started using it in 2008, and I now consider it essential. It connects me on a personal level with a great community of science communicators, even though I’m working on my own in a home office. They also point me to news that I might miss because it comes from a source I don’t follow. Some news sources I do follow, like NASA missions or the UCAR, are also great about tweeting what they’re up to.
The downside right now is that the information flow from Twitter is just about at the limits of what I can track. For example, I don’t follow you (Bora) anymore because I found that you just sent too much information my way, and I couldn’t keep up. You were a victim of your own success in terms of finding too many things I was interested in. I’ve got a set of Twitter handles from people I met at Science Online that I hope to sort through at some point, and find people who would add to what I’m aware of without overloading me. But, right now, I don’t have the time to go through that set, which probably tells me I’m at my limits anyway.
It’s a time management/attention span issue, something I’ve never been good with in any medium, and I’ve not found a way to handle it well for Twitter yet. But Twitter’s been so valuable, that I really feel compelled to try to do better.
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 think I’ve been reading technology blogs for ages – it’s how i first discovered Ars, in a time when it was more clearly bloglike – and just gradually incorporated a few science blogs that I stumbled across as part of me regular reading. RSS made a huge difference to me, and really shifted my perspective on how to consume content. You could decide to follow someone, and software did most of the hard work for you. I’d guess I started using RSS somewhere around 2004.
I’d followed Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong, two of my fellow panelists, for a while because they’re simply excellent writers, but David Dobbs’ blog was a new discovery for me. I love a lot of Derek Lowe’s chem talk at In the Pipeline. I’d stumbled onto Janet Stemwedel’s blog a few years ago, and started following it because I’d met her back in high school at a summer science program. It turns out that she covers issues regarding scientific practice that are interesting, significant, and rarely discussed elsewhere, so it’s one I’ve kept following. There were a number of other attendees that I find myself reading semi-regularly, but don’t actively follow, like Abel Pharmboy and Dr. Isis.
Some guy named Bora, as well….
As for the new discoveries of Science Online, I found myself more interested in people who are trying new things, like video, event-based outreach, and so on. Blogging is pretty well established, and I’m pretty well immersed in text-based communications myself. But now we’ve got science festivals, direct communications from the field (even when the field is the North Pacific Gyre), video content from interviews, profcasts, etc. Maybe one of these will take off as an effective form of communication, in which case I’d love to watch it evolve from as close to the start as possible.
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you?
First and foremost, meeting the people. It was a fun, interesting, and staggeringly intelligent group of people who are truly enthused about what they’re doing. I’d known of many of them for years, and it’s great to finally meet them.
One of the things I’ve missed from my scientific career is going to a meeting that involves an exchange of ideas. When i go to something like AAAS now, i’m there largely in receive mode, sucking in information. Science Online let me discuss, learn, synthesize, argue – to feel involved in a process again, one that involves a great community. So, it was really nice to switch back into a participatory mode.
Any suggestions for next year?
All of my suggestions would involve making the meeting longer, and I’m not sure if that’s really an option.
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, blog-reading and blog-writing?
I’ve always felt strongly that science is important enough that we want the best possible people doing it, and that talent is randomly distributed, with no regard to ethnicity, gender, or what have you. But science doesn’t seem to be attracting a random selection of people, which suggests to me that we’re missing some real talent, either because they never view science as an option, or get discouraged when they try to enter the field or develop their careers.
This came up in a couple of sessions and some personal conversations, since a lot of people care about underrepresented groups in science. And what really got driven home to me is what a careful balancing act it has to be. You want to hold up successful members of those groups, in the hope that they’ll be inspiring to others. But, at the same time, you ultimately don’t want to send the message that these people are rare or exceptional, and you don’t want to turn someone into a spokesperson if they’d just rather go about focusing on their career. And being out front on the leading edge of anything exacts a cost on them.
So, I think I came away with a bit more to think about there.
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.