By Grant Jacobs 31/12/2018 5


Blogimmuniqué – one of my irregular communiqués about the Code for life blog.

The end of the year is a time for gathering up stuff, and a time for reflecting. In my case I’d like to let readers have a chance share their thoughts about what directions I could take this blog. (If you haven’t time for reading this, feel free to skip to the sections that interest you, even straight to the comments!)

I’d also like to give a bit of an idea of what I’ve been up to over the last few years.

Those old drafts

If you’re familiar with writing, you’ll know many drafts don’t get published. They pile up over the years!

Over the last few days I’ve gone through my drafts and ideas for Code for life. I have 17 pages of drafts for this blog. At 20 posts per page, with 3 on the last page, that’s 323 in all.

Lest you think that’s a terrible publication rate, I’ve published a few shy of 1,000 articles on Code for life. Some of those drafts are are not much more than a few words to jog my memory on a topic I might tackle.

Others are near-complete articles. Sometimes the news cycle moves on. Other times you lose confidence. Paid or not, freelance writing can be a fragile thing. Readers might not appreciate the confidence it takes to write open public pieces. Once in a while you write something, then feel unsure if you ought to publish it.

I’ve written this blogimmuniqué around what I’ve seen in those drafts, looking back to see where I might go forward.

What’s likely coming up soon(ish!)

I don’t like making promises I can’t keep; these are just the recent ideas to tackle.

  • ‘Walking’ molecules: kinesin dragging a vesicle along a microfilament.
  • On my reading list (it’s that time of year we all catch up on reading!)
  • More on He Jiankui and the ‘CRISPR babies’—the gene edited babies in China.
  • A short series on GMO concerns, something I’ve been meaning to tackle for a long time.
  • On retractions – what retraction in science are, and my thoughts on them.
  • On ‘team’ criteria in science jobs.
  • What epigenetics is and is not.
  • Science in fiction
  • Autism frameshifts (an update on genetics in autism).
  • Japan’s rubella epidemic as example of the herd effect.

There’s many more, of course.

If you have any (biological) topics that you’d like to know more about, or that interested you, you’re welcome to add your ideas to the comments.

One thing I’d like to see a little more on blogs, is opportunity for those ‘members of the public’ (that scholars of science communication refer to!) be able to ask their local science communicator to say a bit about, if they feel up to it.

What I’d (also) like to be doing

Away from this blog, I’d like to be paid for at least a little of my writing. It’s been an aim for a long time and there’s that practical thing of needing money. (Don’t we all?) There is a lot I could say about trying to find opportunities for science writing, perhaps another time.

The relevant bit for now is that there are some conflicts with writing a blog when the time could be used writing from the same material for pay. I have put in substantial time backgrounding some topics that have gone unrewarded. (He Jiankui’s editing of babies, the ‘glyphosate’ trial, etc.)

The last few years I’ve spent a lot of time outside New Zealand. For four months I cycle toured in northern Europe, mostly in Sweden. I’ve been in several other countries, including England (London), Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia. I have rented my house in NZ out to give a tiny base income.[1] Even living modestly in cheaper locations in Asia I slide further backwards each week. A little part-time income would make up this shortfall.

The Mekong River near Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

During this time I am tackling a few longer-term writing projects, at my own expense. Science-themed, of course! I also explore my research-oriented interests as usual. I’d consider Patreon-type support, as Sciblogs and the Aotearoa NZ Science Journalism Fund do via PressPatron, but I always feel awkward about what feel like handouts. (It’s odd, if you think about it: research grants are hand-outs of sorts too. You’d think I’d be used to that…)

Blog posts can be different to media stories

Blog posts can be different to articles in media outlets in a few important ways, if writers choose them to be.

Readers have direct access to the writer. Pretty much all media puts a wall up between the readers and the writers. Readers don’t get to ask questions of the writer, for example.

It works the other way too: writers can ask readers stuff. Earlier in this piece I asked readers if they had topics they are interested in. Aside from a few columnists, this is rare in mainstream media. (There’s a similarity here: like bloggers, columnists try build a loyal following.)

Blogs are often intended to encourage discussion rather than convey ‘news’. How they’re written can reflect that. For example, I often don’t completely explain something to leave a space for readers. (It’s a tip I encountered from the ScienceOnline community in their heyday.) You’d be unlikely to do that in a newspaper or magazine piece.

These encourage a less formal writing style with an obvious presence of the writer. Professional writing tends to hide the narrator; blogs generally do the opposite. (Novels take this to it’s logical extreme, where readers should only ‘see’ the world the author has immersed them in. Some columns—at least those with bylines—can be similar to blogs in exposing the writer directly.)

Where scientist-writers fit in

I’ll leave exploring this for another time, as it’s a full topic in it’s own right. What I’d like to quickly bring it up is that I see a tendency to lump all ‘media’ writing into one basket. In practice, different types of stories are best tackled by different types of writers. Some stories that are better covered by someone with real expertise in the topic area. These most often are longer-form pieces, but I think more attention could also be paid to this for contentious topics.

A tangentially related thing is that different types of stories want different styles, including this blog. I would hardly write about the ongoing Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as I’d write about finding that a scientist sneaked a face into a turd in a research paper. (That has to be one of the more off-beat things I’ve seen in a research paper…)

Topics I’d like to be covering

No, that’s not me. I swear. Truly. (But it’s fun. It’s an Abyssinian black-and-white colobus. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I’d like to be doing more stories about interesting aspects of genetics, or things that I just find fun.

As someone with knowledge about biological topics I feel an obligation to offer sensible information about topical issues. GMOs. Vaccines. Glyphosate. Genome editing in babies. And so on.

I care about things, I guess. Scientists are like that. A large part of the idea is to use expertise to help others.

It’s a mixed blessing. I get to delve into the latest fusses. There’s often interesting science in there, like there is in pretty much everything else.

But a flip side is that get politically-oriented nastiness directed at me, no matter how politely or plainly I write. (In my experience, the clearer and plainer you write, the more some object.) Activists opposed to these things act like it’s a war of attrition; that they ‘must’ ‘attack’ those who offer information. That’s not always fun.

Code for life covers a very wide range of topics. Mixing different types of content also affects who reads the blog, and ‘marketing’ it. It’s easier to market something with a tight focus. That also tends builds an in-crowd, which sustains the effort, but isn’t always healthy in other ways. Several years ago I decided a mix of lighter pieces for those who don’t really read science and some meatier pieces on some issues might work. Long story short, I’d like to get back to mixing in a few lighter pieces.[2]

Themes

Back to the blog. Enough ruminating… Scanning through that pile of drafts I see several themes, a couple that I might not revisit.

Reader comments on these themes are welcome.

Topics I’m likely to keep on at

Many drafts or story ideas cover interesting stories from genetics. These typically take substantial time to write. Many would be well suited as material for (say) magazine stories rather than the blog. Other corners of molecular life deserve attention too. Topics I rarely cover but find wonderful are rare disease genetics and gene therapy.

Genome editing is drawing a lot of public attention, especially with He Jiankui claiming to have genome edited twin babies in China. I’ll have more to say on this.

Like former Chief Science Advisor Peter Gluckman, I think we need to revisit GMOs. The current regulation is a mess that I don’t think is even best for those concerned about new crop and animal varieties. Glyphosate is a related topic, unnecessarily demonised in part because of perceived links to GMOs. Gene drives are different, but relate to conservation efforts.

I often tackle things related to reading or writing about science, sometimes with journalists or editors in mind, other times ‘the public’. A few are about science itself; these can give non-scientists a peek at things we’re faced with.

Fun stuff loosely related to biology is something I’d like to bring more often, partly in the hope it’d appeal to people that might otherwise not read science. It’d also give me a break from things focused around genetics.

Over the last few years I’ve visited several science centres overseas outside New Zealand. (Both non-scientist centres and scientific institutions.) Some drafts are about these or about historical science at a location I’ve visited.

Bioinformatics is my patch. I don’t write on it much — while it might appeal to people in my field, I’m not sure how non-scientist readers feel about it. (Now if I had the time for two blogs…)

Epigenetics is one of the several biological areas I cover. It’s misunderstood in the media and unfortunately also by many biologists. The 3-D structure of genomes is my main interest within gene regulation these days. (I wish NZ grant funding were kinder to me!)

Topics I’m likely to not revisit as often

Vaccines I don’t write on this as much now, partly because we have a vaccine specialist at Sciblogs. Nevertheless I still pop up with the odd piece when it seems it might be helpful. I will likely write on autism genetics.

Homeopathy is a doozy, soft target and often feels trivial. It’s daft! Despite this people still ply it as meaningful… (Stefan Browning’s stunningly off-the-wall valedictory speech was a lark on this note.)

Open source research literature is close to my own interests—as a freelance operator access to the research papers can be a real issue—but it’s a topic I may drop. There are now formal efforts to bring this about. I’m not sure I can do these efforts justice with the time I have.

Footnotes

I get frustrated at the lack of a checklist scheme for WordPress sometimes: this initially went out without it’s illustrations. I’ve added a few, but haven’t added some from my own collection as I would have liked to have as that’d take a lot of time.

1. Please, no crass comments about landlords. The populist ‘framing’ of landlords on the current political scene in NZ isn’t sound or wise, and this is a science blog.

2. I was starting out on this in early December but decided to hold out until after a string of posts causing a bit of a fuss was over.

Other articles on Code for life

Scientific paper has a face in a turd. Who could it be?

Genome edited babies — what’s the worry?

NZ EPA is to review 40 chemicals, not glyphosate

Kumara are transgenic

Public opinion of gene editing and enhancement

Data parasites eh?

Sci fi short – abiogenesis

About the featured image

All the images in today’s post are from Wikipedia’s featured picture candidates page for the latter part of 2018. The featured image is a false-colour electron micrograph of Ebola virus. I chose it as a reminder of the ongoing epidemic of Ebola in the northeastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).


5 Responses to “Blogimmuniqué 31 December 2018”

  • Thank you very much for all the information and entertainment you have given me over the years. I would like to learn more about bioinformatics please.

  • Hi Grant. Happy new year. Brave post, well done. Very much exposing the author to the audience. Too scary for me. Also keep up the good work on the science blogging, tough road with little monetary support, but something we at the coal face don’t get time or money for either, despite what signals might come from above (and outside). Makes me want to work out how to find science comms better, but also I have to admit I’m rather stumped as how it could/should be done.

  • For what it’s worth, exposing something of the author to readers was something the ScienceOnline crowd (in it’s heyday, a few years ago now) recommended, so that the science blogs wouldn’t be ‘just’ a string of ‘news’ articles. You’ll see the same for, say, those that used to write for The Guardian Science blogs. Some are at Cosmic Shambles now; see also Occam’s Typewriter.

    There’s still research work I’d like to do, given opportunity. Your reference to ‘we at the coal face’ can be read as meaning I don’t do research. In practice still read the areas I follow, even if constrained by time, hampered by paywalls, etc., etc.

    On the monetary support side of things, those on university salaries, etc., do at least have a base income to draw from to cover simply living at all! (I’m reading ‘find’ as meant to be ‘fund’.) I’ve made a few suggestions about how to fund science communication within academia in the past. Maybe more on that another day.

  • Thanks very much for continuing to write this excellent blog. I’m a longtime reader, and also a doctor, and what I’d love to see is a review of the evidence on the most effective way to communicate with people who are anti-vaccination. I know that simply providing them with the facts isn’t terribly helpful – there seems to be evidence that people dig in when confronted with contradictory beliefs. The last thing I’d want to do is to alienate a patient or to strengthen their anti-vaccination belief. But what *does* work? If this has been researched, I’d be hugely grateful for any pointers. (Apologies if you’ve covered this in the past and I’ve missed it.)

    • Hi Nicola,

      Thanks for writing. You should be able to comment without having to wait for moderation now that I’ve approved your first comment.

      It’s a good question. If I recall correctly there is at least some research on this. I have to admit I’ve never entirely convinced by the research on some of these things. They strike me as issues with a lot of variables, tested in a limited way. I’ll add it to the writing ideas, and see if I get there! More to come later, hopefully.

      It also strikes me as something that might deserve a more formal effort somewhere like NZ Doctor that reaches out to other doctors in the country, if that hasn’t already been done. I should mention here that Helen Petousis-Harris also writes on Sciblogs. She’s a specialist in vaccines, and writes the Diplomatic Immunity blog: https://sciblogs.co.nz/diplomaticimmunity/ (She’s flat out though, so I have a little more time for writing!)

      Your question is tangentially related to my latest post, Strongest opponents of GM think they know best but actually know the least. The research focuses on extreme opposition to GM food, but the science communication questions overlap. There people believe they know enough to challenge the experts, when in practice they know little.

      There should also be research on dealing with the Dunner-Kruger effect in general (which I’ve mentioned in the opening sections of the GM opposition post).