I had a nice chat today (OK, a while ago, when I first started writing this post) with a researcher who wanted to know why I blogged and how I balanced my science communication work with my research activities. In talking with her, I realized that there was a way to explain my views that I hadn’t thought of before and then I realized that this might make a blog post that other people would care to read. So here it is.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10. Just vomiting out words.
I’ll take a historical perspective to answering why I bother doing what I do, and how I came to do it. As an evolutionary biologist, and as a teacher and communicator, I find that this kind of narrative works for me and for others, in deepening comprehension of why things are the way they are. In my pre-college and college years, I loved to read and write, and I liked science. A professor as a father, a mother who encouraged scholarship and a family that liked to go experience nature together helped. I eventually got competent at writing and maintained that ability (even musing about whether I might become a Hollywood screenwriter– bullet dodged?), whilst figuring out that some sort of biology might be right for my career. Off to college I went.
Amidst the beer-fuelled haze of undergrad life at the U Wisconsin, I fell in love with the science writings of Stephen Jay Gould and some others, which today would be blog posts. A course in the history of science and a lot of courses in biology shaped my interests, and to cut that story short, off to grad school I went in 1995. I’d discovered the internet (on my dad’s iMac) while recovering from some major health problems, and liked it. I learned to love it during my PhD work, participating in a lot of arguing on the Dinosaur email listserver and other kinds of online writing.
In particular, I fell in with the crew of grad students writing pages for the UCMP website— the original online virtual museum. These pages, intended as “virtual exhibits”, were more or less blog posts, or wikipedia-esque entries, or whatever you want to call them in modern parlance. They were reviews of and commentaries on current knowledge on various topics in biology/palaeontology. I now realize that even back then I was an avid science communicator, especially online. I now realize that this hasn’t truly changed in 20 years, except how I do that online communication.
I lacked the self-confidence (or experience) to do much science communication in person, preferring to take the time to slowly write posts/pages online while in hermitage in the museum basement’s computer lab or at our lab’s office computer. Oral presentations utterly terrified me (sometimes to the point of paralysis) until late in grad school once I’d had some practice doing them at seminars and conferences, then I started to love talking about science in person to larger groups (teaching undergrads helped build this love, too). My work began to attract the attention of the media, especially in 2001-2003 during my postdoc at Stanford once my T. rex and elephant biomechanics research got published, and that attention helped train me (through some great mentors’ help) to be better at reaching and engaging with the public via the media.
By 2003 I was a faculty member and my science communication activity continued, even expanding as I became more well-known. Yet my online “scicomm” presence was by this point reduced essentially to only my personal RVC webpages (with several stories about my research that were akin to blog posts) and occasional journalists’ stories about my research. I focused on being a “typical” scientist. That worked for me; I was happy with it.
Finally, in ~2010 I started to catch the online science communication bug again, inspired by bloggers and science writers (and scientists) like Darren Naish (Tetrapod Zoology) and informal chats with colleagues who were experimenting with the newer forms of communication, which were far more engaging than prior forms like the static, non-interactive webpages I’d worked on at the UCMP. And so here I am; see the “Welcome” tab for how this blog originated.
Why then do I continue with this and how to I find whatever balance exists between scicomm and research? First off, I don’t like to think too much about categorizing what I’m doing. It’s all science (writ large) to me, whether I am doing computer analysis or dissections or writing papers or training people or writing blog posts or tweeting. There is a “zero-sum game” that people obsess about in balancing scicomm “versus” research. Yes, it’s true: there are just 24 hours in a day, and to be a successful scientist one must spend some of those hours, on average, on research. Wow. But as long as the research is moving forward at a pace I’m happy with, I don’t care if it took me an average of 6.5 or 8 hours/day to get my part done, or how that time precisely was spent. I don’t think I ever have cared. I don’t do hours-accounting to ensure that I am clocking in and out the “correct” number of hours. I hate that shit and it’s why I didn’t go into a job where I must clock in and out. Lack of freedom suffocates me, and I think that the zero-sum mentality suffocates science.
Similarly, I don’t feel that some vital opportunity is lost by spending time on scicomm rather than research data. I’m sure that, over the years, I’ve “lost” a paper or two that I could have written instead of doing some blogging or other scicomm, but I have enjoyed the latter and others have too, so I feel that it has been more than worth whatever “cost” there has been. If some scientists feel that essentially all they should be doing in science/life is publishing peer-reviewed papers, that’s their opinion but it is not mine. But — I don’t consider that my blog posts are equivalent to peer-reviewed papers by any means, either. I list my blog on my CV as one line, not all of my blog posts like I do for my papers. It is far harder to publish a scientific paper than to write a blog post; there is no equivalency, at present.
Yet on the flip side, blogging is valuable and fills a gap that scientific papers cannot. Once I became a Professor in 2011, I felt even more liberated than when I got tenure. I felt that it was time for me to try new things and take risks, that this was what being a professor was partly about. So I looked around at opportunities and, reflecting on my experiences with documentaries like “Inside Nature’s Giants” and various conversations I’d had in person and on social media (mainly Twitter), I tried blogging. I saw opportunities to engage a broader audience in discussions about anatomy, and I wanted an outlet in which to be creative as a writer and scientist, so blogging fit me. In a blog like this, I can be human, I can talk about myself or others in a personal, less detached and dry way, I can make very speculative statements, I don’t have to reference everything or obsessively avoid any sloppiness, I can be casual, I can be longwinded (like this post), whatever — I can do what the fuck I please, including say “fuck”. I can write posts on anything I want and it doesn’t have to be a novel contribution nor do I have to “sell” it in ways that I might with papers. Try those things in a peer-reviewed publication. Research papers are straight-jacketed by rules because that constrained format has worked for them over the past two centuries. It works for transmitting carefully-checked results that assemble a body of increasingly-trusted knowledge.
I like the release that blogging gives me, to be intellectual in a more creative, explorative, personal, conversational way. This freedom is healthy and rewarding for me, I’ve found, giving me a satisfaction that I can’t get from just grinding away at papers, by engaging with the broader, (potentially) global public rather than just a few specialists — or just a few local people at public science events. Let’s face it, a lot of our peer-reviewed publications don’t matter much; they won’t get cited much and might eventually get forgotten, and even those few specialists that do care about them might not care that much. What matters to me is how I feel about how I am spending my life. I do passionately love discovering new things in my research but science doesn’t start and end there for me. Much like with social media, I’ve benefited from things (some unexpected) like new collaborations, meeting scientists/journalists/science-enthusiasts who become new friends, invitations to do new things like give seminars or take part in bigger media (documentaries, major websites, etc.), being seen as an expert by a broader audience, a stronger and more diverse CV (including positive comments on reviews for funding/other applications), improved writing/communication skills and more. Hence it would be false to say that I lose something by not spending all my time on conventional science. I gain other things from blogging and other scicomm that have their merits, and in the end only one thing matters: does it feel worth it to me? Yes. Do I think that everyone must/should do the same? No. To each their own, but more scientists should consider broadening their scicomm horizons, giving the potential benefits more thought in the weighing of all the priorities that they must juggle. Some people aren’t ready to add scicomm to their repertoire. Some just aren’t suited to it at all. That’s fine. It’s part of the diversity of science. Not everyone can be part of the same conversations and experiences.
To me (like so many in scicomm), whether it is papers or blog posts, it’s all about conversations. These formats of conversations have the same intent: to share and discuss. Indeed, they have much in common, formatting and rules aside. That’s why I like in-person interactions, or seminars and conferences, or social media, or other forms of conversation, too. Each has its pros and cons, and except for social media scientists have been doing them for centuries. One could consider social media/blogging to have been around for 20+ years depending on how one defines it. I’ve realized that I’ve been engaging in conversations over the internet in analogous ways for those decades, and that blogging is not that new for me after all. I see myself as taking a break from the UCMP webpage-writing in by 2001 to returning to public online scicomm in 2010-11, with Facebook acting as a midwife for that transition. Posting science stuff on Facebook to a few hundred friends (ten of whom might show signs of caring) just wasn’t enough for me by ~2011. Since then, I’ve found that the diversity of the world that I can engage with in all these conversations expands my horizons and teaches me new things about science (e.g. other fields I don’t know much about) and about people (e.g. other scientists/science-enthusiasts/journalists I hadn’t met), or even changes the way I look at my own research (e.g. major trends in open access, open data, etc.). This is another major benefit that I wouldn’t get from isolation in an ivory tower. All of these things are echo chambers, whether one is in isolation in the research field of evolutionary biomechanics or the larger area of scicomm that this blog explores, or scicomm on Twitter, or whatever. Mindfulness of that reality can help prevent one’s mind from becoming too full of those echoes and losing sight of the broader world, and I try to be mindful.
I’ve discovered that I like to share, that this is a big part of my personality. I had suppressed some of that side of myself in the early 2000s, developing trust issues that I see in many other scientists today. I imagined things like: if I share, what if someone criticizes me, or I say something wrong and get embarrassed, or someone steals my data/ideas, or someone doesn’t like how I seem to be spending my time, or something else goes wrong. These imagined risks came from stories I’d heard about naughty colleagues and other people, and things I’d experienced myself, some of which were very unpleasant (e.g. colleagues trying to use me, or taking my data or ideas; or people just being jerks). I focused on the negative aspects of sharing but didn’t thoughtfully weigh them against the positive. I now see what I had missed, although things worked out well for me anyway and I don’t deeply have regrets about what I didn’t do prior to 2010-11. I was more selfish, true, and that was strategic selfishness (focus on my research career) as well as irrational selfishness (avoid things that scared me as risky), and there are other things about me back then that I don’t like (e.g. more competitive, less helpful/collegial; which tends to come with secretiveness/lack of sharing) but I don’t beat myself up about them. I could have been much worse, and what matters now is the choices I make now, which I think about much more carefully than I did back then, with the benefit of wisdom gained through successes, failures and mistakes.
Similarly, I don’t like to harangue myself about whether I am doing “work” or “life” stuff. I’m not a fan of this dichotomy. It is an unfair attitude to force upon oneself, in my opinion. “Work vs. life” is set up to impose self-flagellation for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. I believe in work-life integration, just as I believe in research-scicomm integration in science. I do what I need and want to do when it feels right to do those things. The ultimate goals are what matter most; I want a good life in all facets, including making the lives of those around me good, too. I seek happiness and enjoyment and satisfaction, and do what feels like it will best bring me those things at any moment, depending on how I feel. Sometimes I have energy inside that feels best directed toward writing a blog post. Sometimes I’m more excited about a paper. Or a movie, or a cuddle with cats, or whatever. Generally my #1 job priority (as a senior mentor to numerous people) is to help my team get its work done and published (see my prior posts on managing teams), and whatever other time remains when I feel like working is spent on other things, like my own research or scicomm or whatever. I try to avoid guilt-bludgeoning myself about whether I am working or “living” at 06:00 or 10:45 or on Sunday or Wednesday. But I do bother myself about ensuring I have time with my family and friends, which brings many flavours of happiness and enjoyment and satisfaction that science cannot. I don’t believe in working that much on weekends (but I do dabble sometimes, and I don’t overly guilt-trip myself if I do) and I do want to take time off after 5pm most nights with family, and I do need 7-8 hours of sleep or I’m extra grumpy and low on my science-fu levels. I’m happy with my work-life integration, and it seems to be playing out OK as long as I manage my stress levels and physical fitness.
In summary, to me blogging is part of the balance that I try to seek in life, and that balance is deeply personal, ever-changing, and enjoyable to me. There will never be a right answer to the question of what balance is “right” for any one person, but there is a threshold of contentment that can be reached in seeking that balance, and if one reaches that, then that’s good. There will be people that try to tell you that the balance you seek is wrong, and some of them will be worth listening to but others are best ignored or told to piss off. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have to convince people that your balance is “right” for you, whether it is your family or your peers or grant funding committees. I’m fortunate that experiences in terms of people criticizing my time spent blogging have been minimal for me (I know this is not true for plenty of others!), yet I feel well-prepared to defend my blogging interests if I’d have to.
But concurrently there is a question of trust: shouldn’t those parties evaluating your life-balance be accountable for trusting you to make your own decisions, and questioning whether the standards-of-balance they hold as ideal should apply to you or not? This will always be a source of some tension with some people—and maybe it should be, but it has to be, because we are not all the same people living the same life. Maybe it’s easier “just” to focus on cranking out data and papers and not doing much else in science, much like it might be (or seem) easier “just” to blog 100% of one’s time. Maybe there’s jealousy or insecurity or fear of change that wells up in those that do find a certain, seemingly simple, set of priorities to be the right balance for them in their life, but don’t like to see others seeking a different kind of balance. Keeping more balls in the air in juggling life’s balance ramps up the complexity and that can be more difficult to control; more unstable, even. All of these questions of priorities, trust and balance arise from our humanity and our diversity and present us with frequent choices about how to handle them. I’d like to end this post on a more positive note by suggesting that we celebrate these questions, and by doing so that we celebrate our diversity and humanity and become part of the dynamic kaleidoscope of science and the real world. Maybe we should worry less about judging how others balance their lives; lives whose details we probably know little about; and push ourselves to learn something from our fellow scientists and science enthusiasts by seeking to understand how they’ve arrived at the point in life that they’re at, and seeking to build edifices of trust that there are many ways to contribute to science. We might learn new things that could inspire us to change our own priorities, much as I did in my life journey that led to this blog’s inception. There is a lot of common ground to roam in discussions about balance in the lives of those passionate about science. Curiosity and trust are key components of that ground’s bedrock, like they are of science’s. Discovery and sharing are other parts, in which research and scicomm play important, interactive roles.
I’m curious to hear what others think of things I’ve raised in this post about why I’ve struck the current balance I’ve made in my life (particularly regarding blogging but similarly extensible to social media), and how that relates to the many ways that others can find balance, which might lead to more harmony between research and scicomm in science. Kumbaya?
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