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 Simon Frantz.
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 was born and grew up in a part of NW London best known for being the setting in Zadie Smith’s novels. No one in my family did anything in the sciences, but I was fortunate to grow up when series like Life on Earth and Cosmos first appeared on our TV screens. I had no idea that I was part of a privileged first generation that had the whole world and universe as our home, but it had an indelible effect on me.
I earned a degree in biochemistry, then spent around seven years in the lab researching the genetics of cardiovascular diseases. I won’t admit how long ago that was, but let’s just say I know how to do Maxam-Gilbert DNA sequencing.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
For several reasons, I realised that academia wasn’t the life for me. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. So, effectively I gave a year’s notice by choosing to work on a one-year grant instead of the three-year one that I was the named researcher on. I pretty much stumbled from there into journalism. I’d be lying if I said I always thought I had a talent for it, or wrote for the university magazine in my spare time, or enjoyed writing papers. A friend of a friend was starting up the UK version of WebMD, and wanted to hire someone with a science background who was willing to start at the bottom. Fortunately for me, this person hired a great team of experienced journalists and he was a great editor and teacher, kind and patient but ruthless with the red pen. I couldn’t have asked for a better learning experience.
Sadly, this didn’t last long. When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, we all found ourselves out of a job. I ended up at Nature Publishing Group as a sub-editor for Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, and a chance conversation with the editor of Nature Reviews Drug Discovery led to a move to launch their news section, which I ran for over 5 years. After that, I worked as web editor of The Scientist, and then as an editor on the Nobel Prize website, before landing at my current job as deputy editor of BBC Future, the science and technology website on BBC Worldwide that launched last February.
I’d love to say there’s been a master strategy behind my career trajectory, but the truth is that by and large it’s been a series of happy accidents. All I can advise is: make your own luck, work your butt off; work with people you admire and who are better than you; constantly challenge yourself; realise that your last piece is not going to write the next one for you, as John McPhee said, and that no one owes you anything, no matter how long you have been in this game.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
BBC Future is taking up all of my time at the moment, but thankfully it’s a hugely enjoyable way to spend my time.
We launched the site in response to audience feedback; people said they wanted science and technology content that took a deeper dive at subjects that weren’t in the news, and they wanted it done in a “BBC way”. Almost everything we’ve seen within our first year suggests that there is an active appetite for this type of content. So, our current goals are to create more, and more varied, content that satisfies this appetite – for instance, we’re just launched a video series made by BBC Earth, and we have more video series in the pipeline.
What makes this such a joy is having a roster of great writers, including many past and present Science Onliners like Emily Anthes, Sam Arbesman, Cathy Clabby, Rose Eveleth, Jason Goldman, Maria Konnikova, Christopher Mims, Kelly Oakes, Jennifer Ouellette and Ed Yong. Another goal is to add more Science Onliners to this list.
What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
Almost everything that’s going on is interesting – we’re in this amazing, if somewhat unsettling, time in which there’s never been a better moment to experiment. There are two particular areas of interest that relate to what were trying to do at BBC Future. One is explanatory journalism. We have writers like Ed Yong, Claudia Hammond and Tom Stafford writing great articles that explain and add context to scientific and medical topics. The next step for us is to find ways of covering more areas, cover them in different and compelling ways, and get more writers to try their hand at this form of journalism.
The second aspect is the growing popularity of longform content online. I’m not keen on the phrase “longform”, and there’s no general agreement as to its definition, other than “content that isn’t short”. Definition aside, it’s great to see the adage that shorter is better online being confounded. Apps like Instapaper and Pocket have made it easier for people to find and save articles, and websites like Longform.org, Byliner and Electric Typewriter are great repositories for classic and new articles. IMHO, The Atavist stands head and shoulders above the general longform pack in terms of the quality and sheer inventiveness of what they’re producing (if you haven’t read David Dobbs’s and Deborah Blum’s articles, I urge you to do so).
I think that this format is tailor-made for science and tech stories – from an editorial perspective I think there is fertile ground for articles that are longer than Nature/SciAm/etc features but shorter than a popular science book. (I think several popsci books would be better served in a 20-30k-word feature format, but that’s another argument.) I still have some reservations about sustainable business models for longform content in specialised areas, but it’s great to see people behind projects like Matter and Aeon experimenting with this genre and creating fantastic stories in the process – Ross Anderson’s article on bristlecone pines and Cynthia Graber’s profile of a modern-day Frankenstein being just two examples of must-read articles. We’re exploring this area in a somewhat more traditional way; for instance, we’ve just published an account of three science writers who became biohackers. We are keen to do more of this, and if possible help to promote other outlets that want to publish similar content.
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 discovered health blogs first, while I was at Nature Reviews Drug Discovery. Derek Lowe’s blog In The Pipeline was the one that first caught my eye, it still remains an exemplar of what a blog can be: insightful, opinionated and witty. Science blogs appeared on my radar later, around the time that Seed launched its blogs. My list of favourites are far too numerous to name, many of which I learned about at Science Online, but that only highlights how much the area has evolved. Five years ago, my RSS feed was filled mainly with news channels. Now it’s filled with blogs.
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?
We don’t publish blogs at the moment, though you could argue that our columns are a form of blog – the writer’s voice is as important to us as what they choose to write about. My opinion on who should write for us is anyone who cares about a subject and wants to tell the story in the most compelling way – be they a BBC stalwart for decades or a person just entering the world of blogging. So awareness of all the great blogs out there is an important part of my job, as are networks like Twitter and Facebook. When you aren’t part of the news cycle, social recommendation becomes important in terms of raising awareness of your content.
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for the 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?
The evening before the conference began summed up everything that I value about the conference. The hotel bar was full of people meeting and laughing: whether it was old friends and colleagues, online friends or people meeting for the first time. There were no name badges and therefore no hierarchies; experienced heads were talking to any newbies who were willing to introduce themselves.
I’ve been to two Science Onlines and the overwhelming feeling I’ve had from both is how much I have to learn. I love the idea that I can sit next to someone on the bus, or stand next to them in the queue, and they can blow my mind about their research, or make me intensely jealous about their site, or even help me control my email inbox better (thank you Walter Jessen!). And I love the spirit in which this is done, we all want to do what we do better, and people discuss this without any airs or graces, irrespective of their level of experience.
The other aspect I appreciated most is the effort that you, Anton, Karyn and everyone else put in to make sure that every detail is covered, from the wi-fi to the quality of the coffee in the mornings. On these details, great conferences and experiences are made.
Thank you so much…and see you tomorrow!