09 March 2014

#sciosafe thoughts

Dr. Janet Stemwedel published a lengthy post on the impromptu session she led at ScienceOnline summarizing the actions the co-signers of that post want the leadership of that organization to take. I was at that session, and I think her background and description is an accurate reflection of what was discussed there. It is presented in good faith. I don't know every co-signer, but the ones I do know are people I like and respect very much.

My background isn't in science or in science communication, it's in politics and PR. I may come at this issue from a different perspective. But since my profession is concerned with transparency in communication, let me be clear: I have no financial interests to disclose in this matter. 

Arguably I gain professional standing when I speak at conferences like ScienceOnline because it strengthens my position as a leader in my field and suggests expertise in a "niche" not commonly seen in PR. Further, it's clearly in my interest to build relationships with science writers because I may want to pitch them or collaborate at some point in the future. I also love doing it.

My advice and opinions on all this  - whether given publicly, written on this blog, or given privately by request -  has been blunt, perhaps to a fault.  (It has all been free and worth every penny.) However, as it pertains to the list on Dr. Stemwedel's post, I hope people realize the following opinions are sincere and given in the same good faith and spirit of constructive engagement spelled out there.

The first four items on the list are basically no-brainers. They include commitments to more transparency and diversity, more regular communication, and professional and technical support to better implement their policies on harassment. If the leadership of ScienceOnline isn't already working on these items, I'm fairly certain they will soon.  If they don't, I won't be back. Neither will a lot of people.

I think the fifth item, which involves a specific person, requires legal counsel and presents challenges from a PR perspective. If I were asked a question about a specific person who has no affiliation with the organization, I would say that people who follow our rules are welcome, and people who don't follow our rules aren't. I would want the rules to be the standard, and not a specific person. When we start talking about people and specific situations, it's easy to start nibbling away at our standards. It's also easy for critics to say there's now a semi-official blacklist. Don't get trapped.  Make really tough rules. Let the rules speak for themselves and enforce them.

The sixth item, reincorporating ScienceOnline to make it a "membership organization," is the hardest one for me for a few reasons. First, there already is a membership organization called the National Association of Science Writers that could fit many (though probably not all) of the needs of this group.  Many #scio attendees are also NASW members. 

Second, there are several examples of organizations that serve their communities effectively without being membership organizations. BlogHer and evo have held great conferences with outstanding speakers and content. They have been relentless about meeting the needs of their community. SXSW has a "panel picker" process to help build their annual program. All of these groups build value for participants and attract a lot of sponsors, defraying the costs for attendees. 

Third, I'd want to know what criteria for membership there are beyond a simple entry fee and the selection process for presentations. Without thinking this through, the organization and conferences could easily be hijacked by an organized and well-funded group of climate deniers or anti-vaxxers who pay their membership fees. Of course, if the standards are too strict, it's easy to exclude people who currently feel welcome at ScienceOnline. People without science backgrounds. People who don't write about science very much. People like me.

Finally, there's nothing that prevents the #sciosafe group from forming a new organization with the appropriate standards.  That would very likely take less time and effort than re-organizing ScienceOnline. The people in the #sciosafe group aren't simply "customers," though I think that's a pretty damn powerful thing - they are also entrepreneurs. To me, entrepreneurship has always been a profoundly powerful form of advocacy. 

As for the seventh item, asking for elections of board members if the organization reincorporates, it's basically an adjunct to the sixth item. I don't know how you have a membership organization without giving those members a say in who leads them. My concern still stands, however - science isn't subject to a popular vote, and neither is science communication. Vaccines are safe and effective. Climate change is a thing. The world isn't 6,000 years old. I'm not paying dues to a group that could be hijacked by those who want to "teach the controversy" or whatever, and I've seen nothing yet about safeguards for that.

ScienceOnline does a great job delivering content about science communication and they do a great job serving their customers. That's not opinion, it's analysis - last month's annual conference sold out in 28 minutes.  I can't think of a reason they won't sell out again.   A large number of very influential customers have come to them with concerns, and I share their sentiments if not their precise requests.  I have every reason to believe they will be heard. 

I don't think Dr. Stemwedel's post represents a "take it or leave it" list of demands, and I don't think anyone believes all the details are done. I don't want my hesitation to co-sign suggest I have anything other than zero-tolerance for harassment, and I also want to think this through.  I'm as interested as anyone in how this evolves.


Anonymous said...

Hey David,
I agree with your thoughts here. One of the reasons I signed Janet's summary is because on issues where I think it's not clear how to proceed (e.g., the idea of creating a membership org), it calls for assessment -- rather than simply saying a membership org is the way to go.

At present, I don't think moving to a membership model makes a lot of sense. But I'm willing to be persuaded, or at least to hear people out on the subject.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, David, for writing this up. I've found your insights - on this blog and in person - to be incredibly helpful. One of the things that has encouraged me most is the willingness of the people of ScienceOnline to hear each other out at #sciosafe and in the many subsequent spin-off conversations. It discourages me that, as you say, many of the things the group felt compelled to ask for are, as you identify, no-brainers. I think there are some very easy answers, but suspect more difficult conversations to come. I truly hope better things arise because of this.

- Liz

Anonymous said...

As a practical matter, I'm not convinced the Scio Board hasn't already been doing a sufficient job on most of these goals, given the variables and time constraints involved (is there ANY large organization that doesn't have a subset of members dissatisfied with leadership on such points). Kinda funny/ironic too, that the ScioSafe group calling for MORE "transparency" asked Scio Board members NOT to sit in on their meeting, asked men to be SILENT! and requested attendees NOT to tweet various details (yes, I understand the reasons involved for all that, just sayin'.…) Meanwhile, backchannel communications rapidly continue, also in a NON-transparent way. As far as becoming a "membership" organization, that could well destroy much of the egalitarian, 'non-conference' nature that was deliberately built in to Sciox. "Entirely elected leadership" simply substitutes a different set of potential problems for currently perceived problems, and similarly an "expanded Board" has several benefits, but also runs the risk of slower, more acrimonious decision-making.

BTW, one could offer a list of reforms for university 'philosophers' (Janet's dept.) to implement if they want THEIR field respected as a serious academic endeavor (because, hey, PLENTY of science folks DO NOT take philosophy seriously as a discipline) -- my point being that ANYthing can be easily criticized if that's the focus one wishes to take; IMO the Scio Board (kudos especially to Karyn), has performed admirably under trying circumstances (in fact, if anything, they might have acted TOO hastily and TOO accomodatingly on some matters, before a full discussion of all pertinent facets). Most of those in ScioSafe probably have husbands, boyfriends, brothers, and certainly fathers (sons as well, perhaps) who HAVE been guilty of sexual harassment on occasion -- it occurs (and from BOTH genders) at pretty much all large workplaces and multi-day gatherings. It's a very serious, ubiquitous problem, but also one that leads to divisive, hardened levels of caricature (how many other cyber groups have already been torn asunder by it). If Bora is to be banned in some permanent way from Scio, should not such a ban equally apply to ALL attendees who have ever engaged in similar (alleged) behavior? Should the question, "Have you ever engaged in sexual harassment?" be added to the Scio sign-up Wiki?

One of the very early raps AGAINST ScienceOnline was that it was a gathering of self-absorbed, narcissistic, amateurish egos convening to essentially sing kumbaya to one another (...seriously!)… I hope a way can be found to expose sexual harassment, work against it, but NOT perpetuate that early image in the process, nor destroy individual livelihoods over such an age-old, society-wide problem. For now (subject to change), I trust the deliberative efforts of the Scio Board moreso than the judgments of the Twitter posse that has assembled, but if the Board and its detractors can work together civilly and productively I'm all for it. BORA and ANTON, created something incredible with ScienceOnline; I hate watching it stagger through these growing pains.

- Rob G