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Scientists pushed to engage the public through social media


Environmental Health Sciences professor Andrew Maynard teaches one of the University of Michigan's only classes focused on blogging.

Here you can listen in on an exchange he has with his students:

Listening in on Andrew Maynard's blogging class at the University of Michigan.

Maynard says learning how to communicating online is a skill crucial to his students' professional success.

“I would say very strongly scientists should blog, and they should blog because it forces them to become very familiar with the state of the science in specific areas,” says Maynard.

“They should blog because it gives them the discipline of translating that complex science into something that other people can use.”

Blogs also allow scientists to reach a far larger, mainstream audience, he says.

This new focus on making sure scientists communicate with the public is in part being driven by The National Science Foundation. It's putting more emphasis in grant proposals on having scientists demonstrate the broader impact of their research, which can include social media.

Marketing manager for the Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Office Melissa Molenda says it's not easy to turn scientists into social media believers.

"The scientists are inherently introverted people, and were somewhat reluctant to do something so public and so extroverted."

“The scientists are inherently introverted people, and were somewhat reluctant to do something so public and so extroverted,” she said.

Molenda wanted to introduce her scientists to an even shorter form of social media: Twitter.

She challenged them to a 30-day contest to compete for the most clever Twitter handle, the most followers, and the most retweets.

“They really had a lot of fun with it, and of course Matt Herbert came away the big, giant winner. He had the most clever name. He ended up getting the most followers, and honestly, he had the best content too,” said Molenda.

Matt Herbert is an aquatic ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, and he’s known as @Etheostomatt on Twitter.

He says he was initially skeptical about participating, but ultimately became hooked and now has more than 700 followers.

“I've gone to different professional meetings where I will interact with scientists that I've never met before, but I know them through Twitter,” Herbert said.

“So I've actually met people, I've built relationships with people, through Twitter.”

Herbert says it's a quick, easy way to dialogue, since he mostly posts links to articles.

But some think all this emphasis on social media is a distraction.

Bradley Cardinale is an associate professor in the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment. He thinks Twitter is an inefficient way to communicate among scientists, and he says blogs can force unhealthy trade-offs.

“Keeping a blog, for instance, would be a heck of a lot of time on my part,” said Cardinale.

“I could spend two hours a night writing on my blog to communicate my science to a general public, or I could spend two hours a night writing up my science paper so that I summarize my data and tell people what the actual results are in a rigorous way,” he said.

Even though he's not a fan of blogging, Cardinale thinks it's going to be the wave of the future for scientists. He worries about that impact.

“I think with that are going to come some really serious challenges to universities and departments on how we maintain the quality of science when in fact we're allowing people to communicate what amounts to nothing more than their opinions on scientific media. And so, how do you maintain a high quality of the scientific process, if your giving credit for people to simply get on a blog and express their opinion? That’s going to be the real challenge for universities,” said Cardinale.

That's the landscape that scientists will have to navigate as more of them begin to embrace social media. 

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