One of the good things about Twitter is that it’s like a big party where I can wander around and drop in on as many conversations as I want. Most of them are related, on some level, to science and research and education and natural history. One topic I follow is a pretty important one — it’s about how and why scientists communicate, with each other, and with a broader audience outside our usual little world. Some of the people at the heart of this conversation, people like Paige Brown Jarreau, Kirk Englehardt, and the whole team at Science Borealis, have gotten me thinking about the why of my own efforts in science communication here; specifically, why do I blog about what I blog about?
When I started this blog early in 2011 I viewed it as an on-line newsletter for our lab — an opportunity to post updates about our research, our people, and our collection. And looking back at the first few posts, that’s pretty much what it was. But the blog has morphed and evolved since then, more by accident than by design.
I think this blog (and my too infrequent posts) now focuses on three general areas that are near and dear to my heart.
Communicating our research
The core of what we do here in the lab is research on insect biodiversity, and the main currency of that research is journal papers. But journal papers tend to be written for a specialist audience, which makes it more challenging for non-specialists to access our work. I think scientists have a duty to communicate their research to a broader audience and I see this blog as a chance to summarize our papers, in a more accessible way. I have a lot more freedom to talk about, for example, insect diversity in temperate treetops, or how we straighten out the taxonomy of some little South American flies.
A lot of our research lies at the intersection of three misunderstood things: flies (which are often considered dangerous and annoying pests); taxonomy (which is often considered an old-fashioned pursuit that isn’t very “sciencey”), and natural history (which is often perceived as a bunch of retirees going birdwatching). Yet, flies are one of the most diverse, fascinating, and ecologically important groups of terrestrial organisms on the planet. And taxonomy and natural history are both part of the essential foundation for the rest of biology. Research and training in taxonomy and natural history are absolutely critical for understanding ecosystems, and we have vast amounts still to learn. And this message clearly resonates with people: some of my most popular posts here have been about why taxonomy is important, about what natural history is, and why it matters, and why natural history collections are a critical resource.
Science as a human enterprise
Hollywood and TV depictions aside, scientists are not emotionless, purely objective robots. Science is done by humans, with all the good and bad implications that carries. Media coverage of science often talks about the results or the implications of research, but not often about the people behind the research — the students and postdocs and professors and volunteers and collaborators who took the research from idea to data to paper. I like the human side of science. And I like history. So I write about people who aren’t telling their own stories on Twitter because they died a long time ago; about why I sometimes question myself and sometimes laugh at myself; about why I need fieldwork; and about why questions matter just as much as answers.
I don’t post as often as I’d like, mostly because other kinds of writing eat up a lot of my time. Sometimes I’ll start to write a post and then sit on it for ages. I’m indecisive that way (or maybe I’m not). Sometimes, if I’m inspired, I’ll have a good run of posts. Sometimes I am anything but inspired. I should probably post more. Yeah . . .