Eleven years is a long life for a science blog. Southern Fried Science was born in 2008, when the main writers were all graduate students. Over the last decade the online landscape has changed. Science Communication changed with it, adapting and evolving to meet an ever-shifting ecosystem. Looking back on the last decade and thinking about the next, it’s becoming easier to see where we went wrong. It’s not quite as easy to determine what we need to correct the course.
This is not a scientific assessment, this is my own personal observations from the last decade of running Southern Fried Science, from teaching Social Media for Environmental Communications for the last 7 years, from working with Upwell, one of the most dynamic and visionary ocean NGOs ever conceived, from helping build and launch multiple online platforms, dozens of novel programs, and hundreds of outreach campaigns, and from spending a lot of time since November 2016 reflecting on what we’ve done wrong.
That Hideous Deficit
Do we really need another 200 words on how bad the deficit model is and why it needs to die?
The basic premise: that science perception and policy is shaped by an information deficit and that if we just make good science education content and spread it, we can combat the spread of misinformation, people will learn, and everything will get better.
It doesn’t work. It never worked. And it ignores the reality that misinformation is manufactured for political and financial gain, with tremendous incentives and, often, far better funding than science outreach campaigns. But beyond that, multiple studies have shown that, when confronted with information that challenges their fundamental world view, people don’t throw out their worldview, they reject the science, creating a more entrenched and intractable audience.
Just when you thought it was safe to read another decade-in-review listicle…
As the 2010’s come to an end, it’s a time to reflect on the often-problematic decade that was as we plan for a hopeful future. I am a sucker for year-in-review and decade-in-review listicles, and was devastated to learn that no one had yet written a decade-in-review listicle for sharks! Please enjoy my official, scientific list of the most important science, conservation, and pop culture sharks from the past decade.
Every scientist I work with spends most of the day communicating, whether that’s preparing grants, manuscripts, theses, outreach talks, emails to colleagues/students… the list goes on. However, most of these outlets share fairly strict formatting rules. Grants comes with pages of guidelines. Talks have defined who I am, what I did, found, next, thank you slide. While this sterile approach is arguably fundamental to science’s critical tenant of replication, it makes for terrible communication.
It’s easy to get discouraged or demoralized as an environmentalist in today’s world. It seems like every day brings more devastating news. Half of the world’s wildlife has died in my parents’ lifetime, and current rates of extinction may be up to 10,000 times higher than the natural background rate. We’re losing a terrifying number of birds and insects, and a million species are considered threatened or endangered. Things are bad enough that “eco anxiety” is now a recognized mental health condition.
It is said that in the environmental movement, all of our victories are temporary, and all of our defeats are permanent. Much of the current focus of environmental advocacy has been described as “playing against the slaughter rule,” hoping not to win but to avoid getting totally wiped out in our inevitable loss.
In the face of all this, I’m often asked how I can remain so optimistic, and so motivated to keep working. Some people are surprised to learn that a large part of my answer comes from my Jewish faith.
Heather Cooke graduated with an environmental science degree from George Mason University and studied marine biology. She is now a dive instructor and runs Culebra Divers on Culebra Island. This article was written during brief moments of power on Culebra Island.
As General Manager of Culebra Divers in Culebra, Puerto Rico for the last 2.5 years, I have enjoyed our semi-arid island with its brief storms. Known for one of the safer harbors in the Caribbean, my husband and I watched tropical storm after tropical storm and hurricane after hurricane pass us by. What I am writing is based on our experiences and what others around me have experienced or shared from their families on our sister islands.
Culebra the smallest of 3 islands that make up what you know as Puerto Rico (the “mainland”, Vieques, and us) and we’re 17 miles from the mainland itself. To get here you fly from San Juan or take a ferry from the mainland’s east coast. We get all our food and fuel via that same ferry system. Our water and power travel under the ocean from the mainland through Vieques and then to us so if anything happens to either of those islands, we are screwed. The island has a rag tag rental generator and no desalination plant.
As I write this, it has been 34 days since Maria and 48 since Irma and we still lack non-generator power, reliable daily water, and cell service not provided by some other island.
It’s been over five years since Kersey Sturdivant and I launched Oceanography for Everyone – The OpenCTD, my first attempt at crowdfunding science. Over the years, that initial effort has grown into Oceanography for Everyone, a community of researchers, educators, and citizen scientists, and has created new open-source tools for open-source, open-science hardware. The OpenCTD is the finest oceanographic instrument that you can build in your own home for less than $300.
The crowdfunding campaign was a total disaster.
Since then, I’ve written several articles on how scientists can launch and managed crowdfunding campaigns:
…but I’ve never written explicitly about what we did wrong during that campaign and how it impacted our success. Now that the final reward from that campaign has been delivered (yes, five years later, talk about the eternally delayed crowdfunding campaign), it’s the right moment to look back and think about how everything went so wrong.
I went with lesser-known platforms. We launched the OpenCTD on RocketHub. At the time, RocketHub was hosting the #SciFund Challenge, a campaign to encourage scientists to launch science crowdfunding campaigns. Both the #SciFundChallenge and RocketHub were relatively small players in the nascent crowdfunding world. RocketHub doesn’t even appear to do crowdfunding anymore, they’ve pivoted to a “social network for entrepreneurs”. The old OpenCTD campaign page is long deprecated. #SciFund Challenge’s website hasn’t been updated in almost half a year.
Here’s the thing with crowdfunding, and especially crowdfunding in the early days: There are two dominant communities that you can rely on. There’s the community of people who want to support what you’re doing and there’s the community of people enamored with the idea of crowdfunding. Being a crowdfunding “investor” is a hobby in and of itself and many of the biggest donors are people who support dozens of different campaigns. So the larger and more popular the platform, the more crowdfunding enthusiasts you’ll attract. Heck, since backing the very first OpenROV, I’ve backed 23 other projects on Kickstarter, most recently Public Lab’s Balloon Mapping kits.
By going with RocketHub, I committed our campaign to a smaller potential audience. Considering Kickstarter was garnering huge press at the time, this was a near-fatal mistake.
Many aspects of science-ing are not explicitly taught, and scientists become accustomed to mastering the deep end. While this tactic can make you stronger, there are situations where the deep end is a vulnerable place where nasty critters are very happy to take advantage.
One such area? How to handle being contacted by “producers.” In my experience, for every 1 exceptional producer you speak with, you will be contacted by at least 4 scammers. Scam producers will particularly target naïve early-career scientists, just like white sharks and seal pups. In light of this week, I’ve put together a guide to aid YOY scientists rising in the ranks of popularity and make the deep end a little safer. Here are 13 ways to spot scam shark documentary producers, with a few 🚩🚩:
Many years ago as a graduate student at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, my former officemate (Noelle Relles) and I came up with a novel idea: take all the disparate information out there about strategies for getting into graduate school in the natural sciences and coalesce them into a single concise yet comprehensive text. Essentially develop a How-To book about graduate school. But we wanted the book to be more than just instructional anecdotes. We were scientist, and thought it would be useful to add a level of empiricism to the book. We wanted to write a How-To book where the conclusion were driven by results from a national survey of graduate admissions offices in the USA. At the time, writing a book based on a national survey of graduate programs seemed like quite a long-shot as we were both a number of years removed from getting our PhDs, and the most pressing issues in our lives at that time were graduating and finding free food and alcohol.
Living the life of a graduate student at VIMS’ infamous Fall Party. (Photo credit: Kersey Sturdivant)
In Act I I discussed the underlying structure that frames narrative storytelling, but now I want to talk about how we can use the tools available to us on the internet to transform that narrative into something even more potent.
But before we can do that I have to tilt at some windmills.
When we talk about good outreach, we often look to people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, like Bill Nye, like David Attenborough, and like Carl Sagan. These are the paragons of scientific outreach, the icons that we often hold up as examples for what constitutes good outreach. We talk about things like Cosmos, both Sagan’s and deGrasse Tyson’s, Bill Nye the Science Guy and his more recent work combating climate change, or David Attenborough and his astounding Nature Documentaries. Read More
More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.
Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can). I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head. How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.
Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street: