Thursday, June 01, 2006

Justification of public science funding and update

Thank you readers and blog-lleagues for the best wishes and congrats - my promised thank you posts have gotten tied up in communications online and off, as well as the June 1 NIH grant deadline. Again, the move to wouldn't have been possible without your support, links, and advice.

However, the news from SEED Media Group is that the launch of the second waves of their stable of science bloggers and new homepage will be delayed. My e-mail from the Mother Ship indicates that the launch date, scheduled for tomorrow, is indefinite. However, Bora has posted at Science & Politics that the launch is likely for Monday, June 5. (Addendum: Well, uh, maybe Monday, June 12.).

As Bora points out astutely,
"...the new blogs (including mine) will have a debut some time later, hopefully on Monday, which is good as traffic drops precipitously between Friday noon and Monday morning - thus Friday is not a good time to make an impressive start of a new blog."
Incidentally, this is the exact reason that the Bush administration likes to drop controversial bombshells on Friday afternoons: the European and Asian press is already into the weekend and most of the White House reporters are closing up shop, so there's minimal risk of counterspin being put on things until Monday.

No surprise to any of us that Bora is the best informed of us newbie SBers as he has been setting the standard for science blogging since the early days. Add to that his recent trip to SEED's offices in NYC. He notes that meeting the SEED staff, editors, writers, and IT people should improve his online communications with them since the human interactions, or "skin" as I've heard it called by the hipsters, serve to reinforce online interactions.

I noted in his comment thread that I feel this is the reason that virtual meetings, especially in science and medicine, will never completely replace conventional scientific conferences and annual society meetings. So many other interactions occur over beer and wine or dinners that serve to complement and reinforce interactions that scientists have from just reading each others' names in author lines. Real conferences, especially the small ones like Gordon Conferences, Keystone Symposia, and Cold Spring Harbor Symposia also provide great networking opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the mechanism by which most of my lab folks have made contacts for their next positions.

I mention the value of scientific conferences in light of this week's 'Ask a ScienceBlogger' question:

"Since they're funded by taxpayer dollars (through the NIH, NSF, and so on), should scientists have to justify their research agendas to the public, rather than just grant-making bodies?"

The responses from bloggers and their commentors make for great reading.

However, I wanted to draw your attention to two superb articles that appeared in yesterday's (31 May 2006) issue of The Scientist (subscription req'd but available at most academic institutions) on the future of scientific conferences.

In the first article. Keith O'Brien speaks of the partnership that is growing amongst the three aforementioned small meeting purveyors in light of meeting saturation and their own problems getting conferences underwritten by grants, such as the NIH R13 mechanism. This article also has a useful sidebar of "Six Tips for Getting the Most from Your Next Conference" that includes my favorite recommendation to my trainees:
"4. Break away: People tend to attend conferences with colleagues, co-workers, and friends - people they already know. But during talks and at meal times, try and sit with people you don't know. You are bound to learn something new, whether it is about work in your field, how other institutions function, or how different people approach questions relevant to your work."

The second article, written by Keystone Symposia CEO James W. Aiken, details the results of a survey of just over 1,000 meeting attendees on the quantifying the monetary value of the meetings in response to a "return on investment" query in his application for funds form the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"I had to propose a method for quantitative assessment of the impact of our conferences. Our stated goals are to connect the scientific community for the benefit of society as well as catalyze scientific progress by having the highest quality programs - all well and good, but how to measure this?"
A free version of the survey results and quantitative methodology is available at the Keystone Symposia website.

The amazing, but not surprising, conclusion drawn by Aiken was that each annual series of Keystone meetings saves $20-30 million (US) in terms of making connections for collaborations and the sharing of time-saving reagents and protocols.

Scientists generally despise being pushed to make these calculations for the beancounters. But I think we are all being asked to justify ourselves and our activities more and more, regardless of our research setting or position in the scientific hierarchy.


At Thu Jun 01, 02:26:00 PM EDT, Blogger coturnix said...

Well, I'm hoping it will be on a Monday - I don't know.

Thank you for the heads-up to these twe interesting articles. Good reading.

At Thu Jun 01, 05:22:00 PM EDT, Blogger Bill Hooker said...

Scientists generally despise being pushed to make these calculations for the beancounters

Many do, but I think that's a foolish attitude. I think that the more regularly and thoroughly such calculations are done, the better off the scientific community will be -- because I think the return on investment for research dollars is immense, and if we had decent figures to work with (no one is going to buy "but Bill says it's immense!") we'd be in a better place to bargain for support.

And hell, if I'm wrong I want to know that too. I'll be reading those articles with great interest.


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