13 May 2010

Open for Questions... Who's Asking?

I've noticed that scientists are dusting off some decent ideas to gain greater acceptance among the general public - there's a flurry of "ask me" going on.  First, a UK-based group of paleontologists and biologists has relaunched Ask a Scientist, where anyone can submit a question about science, and someone from their rather impressive list of scientists tries to answer it.  In principle, this is an outstanding idea.  Arizona State University has a similar program, designed mainly for kids. Nice, engaging website.

The White House has launched "Ask the President's Science Advisor" that follows roughly the same concept - email a question to OSTP Director John Holdren and, starting tomorrow, he will respond each Friday to one of the questions he gets by writing a brief blog post about it.  It seems to be more casual than technical:
So now is your chance to ask America’s scientist-in-chief for his personal take on anything with an arguably scientific or technological bent: why some wines tickle his fancy more than others (and what are the chemicals that explain those preferences) or what subjects in school left him cold? How about whether he prefers academia or government, or which installment of Star Wars or episode of Star Trek says the most about modern scientific society. We want you to have fun with this and, frankly, ask some of the tough questions about Dr. Holdren that the staff here at OSTP would like to know the answers to but, well, hasn't quite gotten around to asking.
To be honest I think this is important, but I'd rather have the President's science advisor focusing less on telling me what wines he likes or his favorite Star Trek episode and more on, you know, advising the President on science issues.  Still, there is a place for advocating the importance and relevance of science, and I'm pleased that there's at least some attempt by the White House to give it some priority.

Bora Zivkovic wrote about the relaunch of Seed Media's "Ask a Scienceblogger," which also is impressive in principle. Real scientists who like to write, answering real questions from real people.

This is a very important first step.  There's a very important next step, however, and it goes back to what I said about science having a PR problem
Science has a serious PR problem, and it's this: Critics of science are searching people out and talking with them in the simplest terms possible. Scientists and "science writers," if they talk at all, are basically talking with each other.
So I asked Bora - a very smart and very thoughtful guy who definitely gets this - a question in the comments:
Bora, how are people who don't necessarily read scienceblogs learning about this? It sounds very VERY cool, but if I don't know about scienceblogs already, how do I know I even have the opportunity to ask?
 And Bora - again, because he really gets this - responded:
Well, this is an internal Scienceblogs.com thing, revived again after about a year or so of silence. It is targeted at regular Sb readers, but there is always hope that our links on social networks and feeds will bring in new readers as well. There is no special effort with this to bring in new readers - it is up to us bloggers to promote within and outside the network as we see fit.
So Bora is definitely out there, actively promoting this effort on his blog and through his social networks - of scientists. But how does one promote outside one's network?  If it's just for existing readers, don't they already know they can ask questions in the comments?  I know I have.  I don't want to sound like I'm dissing this idea - I think it's actually quite awesome.  I'm just saying it's important to let everyone know what you're doing.  And by everyone, I mean EVERYONE.

The people who read the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog are people who probably already know a lot about science and technology policy.  The people who read Scienceblogs - according to their own market research - are far more likely to have graduate degrees in science than the general public.   Where did I learn about Ask A Biologist?  On Scienceblogs.

The science writing community is chock full of talented people who know how to make science engaging, interesting, cool, even relatively simple for the lay audience.  But they're still preaching to the converted - they're really only speaking to people who already have an interest.  Science needs better PR - it needs people who have the ability to find bridge figures to introduce scientists to new communities and find new points of relevance.  It needs people who can identify opportunities to introduce important scientific ideas into ongoing discussions.  It needs people to connect the dots.

I want to be one of those people.

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