Open science and science communication is something I have come to slowly, over my career. I’ve always been passionate about science and many a trip to the pub results in my friends rolling their eyes when I begin to wax lyrical on some topical point. Over the last few years I have been able to share this passion though schemes like the STEM ambassador program, our blog here and in the future: our massive, year long, crowdfunded openscience project. However, little did I know that while I was quietly working at all these projects, a group of like minded people had been hard at work discussing projects like these at the annual Nature SpotOn event.
I only found out that SpotOn even existed when I saw that Ethan Perlstein, of ‘croundfunding a meth lab’ fame, was attending and would be free to talk to me about his work. Obviously, what with our crowdfunding project immanently due to launch, talking to Ethan would be a huge help as he has been documenting his crowd funding efforts in some detail. SpotOn ran on Sunday (with a key note by Ben Goldacre) and Monday, with some fringe events on Saturday. Unfortunately this schedule doesn’t allow for those of us that found out about it late and couldn’t get anyone to look after our 3 year old toddlers, so I only went along to the Monday session.
The first thing that surprised me about this confrence was just how well internet-linked it all was. Not only were all the sessions live streamed online but all the sessions are now available online for free! This is a great resource for anyone wanting to share information with colleagues unable to make it and it saved on making too many detailed notes on the day. It has been great watching the sessions I couldn’t attend over the last couple of evenings and I will be bugging my colleagues to check out more than a few of them.
The second surprise was just how social the event was. At one sessions (Assessing social media impact) I was standing right at the back, because it was so popular, and I could see the entire audience (and their many screens) throughout. At a conservative estimate I would say that around 75% of the audience were simultaneously tweeting/facebooking and at one point 2/3 of the presenters were tweeting as well! Now I am all for social interaction and communication but I did think that it was a little bizarre, presenting anything to a room full of people staring at screens is not the best experience and I am not convinced that they were all discussing/live tweeting the actual talk. Don’t get me wrong, some of the in-event discussion on Twitter was fantastic and it was great to see it feedback to the panel but there has got to be a balance otherwise we might as well have all watched it at home and just popped in for networking at lunch.
The standout message from the talks I attend at SpotOn 12 was ‘if you like open science so much, go and do it’. All the talks were good about showing the huge range of tools, support and guidance available to anyone wanting to head out into the bright world of public discussion of science. I don’t think anyone can have left the conference in any doubt that greater science openness and communication is good for individual scientists and for the field as a whole. It was very refreshing to spend a day with people talking about these ideas. After spending the last 4 months fighting to get our crowdfunding campaign approved, I had started to get a more than a little down about it. Talking over coffee to current crowdfunding scientists like Ethan and to possible future crowdfunders was invigorating.
One thing I thought was lacking from the discussion at SpotOn 12 was about how open science is funded. It has been my experience (I may be lucky) that people are broadly supportive of sharing their work with a wider audience, and while the management of many universities are not always quick to embrace it, they are also sold on its value to science and to their organisation. However, where my efforts have got stuck in the past, is paying for open projects. Many grants do now include public impact but the more commercial nature of research is still driving us towards secrecy for fear of giving away vital intellectual property. While in some ways this IP protection is good as it stimulates investment in science, I do feel that there needs for there to always be an element of science that is transparent and public facing, especially in an organisation whose reason for being is education. Obviously our route to solving this problem is to ask the public for their help in funding an open project but there should be more grants with an open science focus. Things are moving towards this model with the discussion over the data produced in projects funded by public grants and more recently the announcement of small grants for open access publishing. I am very interested to see how all these pledges towards funding open science work out and I hope that we can keep up the pressure the see them happen. In the meantime - CROWDFUNDING!