My approach to work is shaped by where I live—across the street from an ill kept New Orleans cemetery. Outside my front door I see plants sprouting over crooked gravestones. It’s a contradictory but grounding view, one that shows how beginnings and endings feed each other and create something new in the process.

Local geography drives the point home. There are spurs of relatively high ground in New Orleans, ridges a few feet above sea level where the old city flourished, and where homes stayed dry after Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi River floods built these ridges, laying down successive layers of sediment centuries ago. Floods creating dry land? Paradoxical but true.

Facts like these have altered the way I think about innovation, reminding me that sometimes the best way to make progress is to remember how things all began.

For essays on subjects close to home, see www.amyclippwriting.com.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Buzzards and Brickbats

In the late 70s, I read an unforgettable article in The Washington Post.  I was a teenager and not prone to remembering columns from the "Week in Review" section. But this article was different. The author used a great story to make a point about science communication. His thesis:  that scientists had been trained to fear the very thing that would make their work valuable—public sharing of research. The article's author claimed that scientists had come by their fear honestly; they had been taught that talking about their work brought trouble.

By way of illustration, the author told a story from the making of the movie "Hud," starring Paul Newman. Filmed in the early 1960s cow country of Texas, the movie has a dusty, sun baked feel. For one scene, the crew wanted to shoot a flock of buzzards flapping off a dead tree. To get the right effect the crew had to keep the buzzards still until Paul Newman's character pulled out his rifle and shot at them. At that point, the buzzards were supposed to fly off the tree in unison.

It all sounded easy enough, except that the buzzards didn't cooperate. Hours passed as the crew struggled to keep them from flying off the tree prematurely. Finally, someone tied the buzzards' feet to the branches with wire. That solved one problem and created another. It turned out that buzzards lose their sense of balance when they can't move their feet, and the birds began toppling over and hanging upside down like mutant vampire bats, dangling by their wire fetters. Not the effect the movie crew wanted and awful for the buzzards as well. As the ordeal continued, the buzzards learned that if they struggled, they would end up in a compromised and painful position. So they stopped moving and cowered on the tree, motionless.

The director finally got the shot he wanted, and it was time for Paul Newman to take out his rifle. The crew untied the buzzards' feet, and Paul Newman shot off his rounds. You can probably guess what happened next. The birds were afraid to move. They wouldn't fly away on cue, because they'd learned that trying to do so would hurt. Indeed, if you look at this scene in the film, you can see that the vultures just sit there despite the gun blasts. They had been scared into immobility.

According to the article I read all those years ago, scientists behave the same way when it comes to sharing the implications of their work. As young scientists, their instincts might lead them to share ideas with diverse audiences. But if they do so, they are punished. Non-technical readers misunderstand or misuse the scientists' conclusions. Or their colleagues scorn attempts to "dumb down" complex ideas. Worst of all, fellow scientists use the higher profile of the presented work to publicly shred its argument. And so, according to the article's author, scientists huddle on dead tree limbs, keeping their ideas to themselves, sharing them only with small communities of fellow specialists. Meanwhile, policy makers and citizens remain uninformed.

The article was written over 30 years ago. Have things changed since then? At a recent conference, I heard groups of young scientists discuss barriers to public outreach. Their list was familiar:
  • Outreach is separated from what goes on in the lab. This is true even for taxpayer funded research, which would seem to (and often officially does) require a public accounting of results.
  • There are few academic rewards for doing outreach. University administrators and funding agencies don't make it a priority.
  • Scientists don't have time for outreach. Their schedules are full just trying to perform research and publish their results.
  • Scientists who pursue outreach despite these obstacles can be accused of neglecting their "real" jobs.
The wires around their feet might have been palpable, but unlike the buzzards, these young scientists weren't content to huddle on a tree limb. Instead, they were eager to explore innovative ways to make their work accessible. Stay tuned for more.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rock 'n Roll Heart: ScienceOnline 2013

It bills itself as the “Rock ‘n Roll Heart of Science Communication,” and boy is there a lot of talk about heart. And community, and openness, and collaboration—all values of the Science Online Conference community as listed in the petite, Velcro fastened orange folder that constituted our registration packet. The whole event was like that:  thoughtfully designed and imbued with self definition. Smart people doing a smart conference, smartly. It was daunting.

And dazzling. The 450 attendees tended toward 20s and 30s, lots of paisley tights, nubby sweaters, and rapid fire speech. Seasoned authors mingled with post docs and bloggers over coffee (15 gallons consumed an hour). Live scribes captured the themes of conference sessions, standing at the front of the room and rendering the cross talk in artful 4’x5’ posterboard arrays of graphics and tag lines.

I was a newcomer to this annual event, which is a hot ticket in the online writing world. This year, the 450 attendee slots were snapped up minutes after the registration period opened, with watch parties around the world established for those not lucky enough to be there in person.

Twitter was the prevalent communication medium. Ninety percent of the attendees were devoted users, as shown by a pie chart in the common area. This leant a warp speediness to the proceedings. Sessions featured double layers of talk:  participants joined in both a verbal exchange and a simultaneous volley of tweets that were pumped out and aggregated in real time.

This approach was great for compiling tools, and bulleted lists of options were the primary take homes from many sessions I attended. At one session, I scribbled down the names of ten different software programs that could convert data into cool graphics; the session’s free form discussion generated comprehensive referrals in a matter of minutes.

But there was a downside to the double quick pace. The sessions did not allow time for examining tough issues, and their attendant conflicts. This was a shame, because given a chance, the brainy and committed attendees could have done some serious pondering. Juicy issues arose at every session I attended but were passed over as the conversations tumbled on. For example:

·      Do we sabotage science outreach from the outset if we define it as separate from research?

·      Are we reaching new audiences with our science communications or just talking to ourselves?

·      How do we square outreach on social media with the demands of policy work?

None of those issues was going to be resolved at a conference. But we needed to wrestle with them, owning differences and seeing what the conflicts produced. This would have required savvy facilitation and focused time—measures that encourage the public airing of divergent opinions.

Contentious exchanges would seem to fit the conference’s rock ‘n roll model. Except that for all its quicksilver flash, ScienceOnline 2013 was less a mosh pit of ideas than a love fest where sticky issues were sidestepped in favor of agreeable abstractions (“know your audience,” “the need for transparency transcends specific careers”). The tendency to play nice seemed more coffee klatch than Clash. But, as I said, there are lots of smart people involved. If they can make room for slower, messier conversations, ScienceOnline can keep its rock ‘n roll heart in the right place.