Science Online London 2010

It’s nearly a week since Science Online London 2010 finished, and there’s been plenty of perspectives of the event posted already, neatly summed up by this post on ‘Of Schemes and Memes‘ on Nature Network. I wanted to add my own voice to the crowd, since this was an event dominated by discussions of the dissemination of science, in one way or another – so might as well do some disseminating. So here’s my own, rather disjointed, overview of proceedings.

This was a very different conference to those I usually attend, and if it weren’t for my participation in Knowledge Blog this year I’d probably have been following coverage from my desk again, rather than being at the British Library. I am very glad I got to go though, Science Online is a much warmer affair than your standard scientific conference. The reception for every talk I attended was much more positive than for your average ISMB talk, or even keynote. Obviously I’ve not been in previous years where it was a smaller event, but I’m not sure that this atmosphere could be maintained if it grew much larger next year.

There were many highlights, but the biggest for me was the first. Martin Rees’ keynote really was an excellent way to kick things off. Here was one of the most respected scientists working today, very firmly an establishement figure – President of the Royal Society and the Astronomer Royal – lambasting the publishing industry, and later the University sector, for failing to move with the times. Praising projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Folding@home. It was inspiring, and refreshing. There were many gems amongst his keynote, but the best quote, for me, was (with a certain degree of paraphrasing):

“scientific information and ideas should be absolutely and freely available to everyone, regardless of academic affiliation”

Now, I know he was largely preaching to the choir with this one, but surely this is an ideal worth aiming for?

Having listened to David Allen Green‘s wise words about libel and science writing (“You can incur legal liability in 140 characters” – eep), it’s a wonder that anyone writes anything at all on the subject, but the majority of Science Online was taken up with discussions of it. Blogging, journalism and traditional publishing were all covered to varying degrees and much of the conversation was introspecitve and self-critical. Are we doing a good enough job? How can we do better? Engage more? Make scientists seem less monstrous? I’m not sure you’d find any other group of bloggers discussing their craft in quite the same way. Do Guido Fawkes and Michael White sit around worrying whether they give the public the right impression of politicians? I somehow doubt it.

David McCandless showed how to make science engaging and accessible, and many of his visualisation are stunning, though not all of his content is scientifically rigorous. I find it amusing that he was given a stern examination by this particular audience, with a number of flaws being pointed out in his parade of attractive slides.

I think more discussions of the business of doing science online, rather than just talking about it, would have been welcome. My inner geek felt a little deprived by the end of Saturday, and unforunate clashes meant I missed the sessions most likely to have sated it. Though the fact these sessions did exist among all the dynamic bloggers talking about community engagment gives me heart. Maybe they’ll survive and grow for future years.

I’ve written before about the energising effects of a really good conference, Science Online did not let me down in this regard. Finding time for my blog is always going to be problematic, but a few more evenings like this one, attempting to bash out some words, will be most welcome.

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