ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Mark Henderson

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Mark Henderson (personal blog, work blog, Twitter).

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 background? Any scientific education?

I’m now Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, the UK based biomedical research charity. Before that I was Science Editor of The Times in London for 11 years. And before that I really had very little to do with science at all. I did a history degree, and got into science writing serendipitously when I was asked/told to take the brief by an editor. It was a perfect move for me.

What I’d never really appreciated before starting to write about science was that it isn’t, as Carl Sagan put it, just a body of knowledge. It’s also a way of thinking.

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

I’ve just published a book called The Geek Manifesto, which explores the often difficult relationship between science and politics. It argues that too few politicians and civil servants grasp that Sagan maxim, and as a result tend to let science down, and fail to use its methods as they could to deliver better policy. And that’s partly the fault of those of us who do love and appreciate science — we don’t make ourselves felt as a political voice.

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

One of the big ideas of the book is that it’s up to geeks, bloggers, skeptics, rationalists, scientists to turn the value we place on scientific thinking into a stronger political force. So my talks, blogging and campaigning are very much aimed at encouraging people who care about these issues to lobby their political representatives and to complain constructively, about both politics and the media.

In my day job at the Wellcome Trust, I’m particularly interested in learning how best to exploit the disruptive technology of the web to promote both the Trust and the fields of science it supports, and to engage the public and opinion-formers more successfully. It used to be that “source” organisations like the Trust generally had to communicate through third parties. That’s not really true any more.

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

It’s that ability to reach audiences directly, and to build communities that discuss science and the issues that surround it. The wonderful thing about blogs and Twitter is the ability to interact with scientists, writers and others all over the world — it was a remarkable feeling at ScienceOnline this year to meet so many people I felt I knew through blogs and Twitter, but who I’d not yet met in the flesh.

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

I have a personal blog around the book. The Wellcome Trust also has a blog for which I’m ultimately responsible. I principally use Twitter for science purposes — Facebook is mostly for friends, though I’m trying to use it better for science communication and engagement too.

I can’t actually imagine professional or personal life without online activity now. When I was at The Times, I found the introduction of the paywall very difficult. I found ways to keep going on Twitter, but it did cut my work off from people I thought might otherwise be interested in it.

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 suppose I really started getting into science blogs around 2007 to 2008. I have too many favourites to list many, but I always particularly valued Daniel MacArthur’s Genetic Future blog. Good to see he’s been back at Genomes Unzipped recently.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? 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 loved meeting people I knew online for the first time — people like Misha Angrist and Maryn McKenna whose work I really enjoy and admire. The sessions on the politics of science were really lively. And as I’d literally just started at the Wellcome Trust then, it was especially interesting to explore some of what an organisation like us could do in this space. I hope to be able to announce some exciting developments that will be informed by what I learnt at ScienceOnline very soon…

Thank you! Hope to see you again in January.

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