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Open Science: Why I Blog January 20, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in science.

On a recent airplane trip I watched Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller in which traveler Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts a deadly virus in Hong Kong and transports it home to the U.S. while other people spread the infection to China, the U.K., and Japan. I couldn’t resist; I was flying and the movie cried out, “Watch Me!” I thought I was called to it as a disaster flick centered on public health and scientific responses to pandemic. But what really grabbed me was the back-story about bloggers.

In the film, Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a freelance Internet journalist or “semi-crackpot blogger” who disparages print journalism and blogs about the pandemic from its inception. Early in the film, Krumwiede is dismissed by Professor Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) a research scientist working to provide a cell line that might facilitate development of an effective vaccine. Sussman quips “Blogging isn’t writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation.” Though Krumwiede turns out to be a villain in the film, as a blogger I was sympathetic to his plight.

Of course I’m a college professor–a geoscientist–whose job is ostensibly to educate students about earth processes and to publish original research that adds to our understanding about the planet.  Also, at the liberal arts college where I’m a professor, interdisciplinary scholarship is valued so I teach and write about gender, history of science, and “the environment.” If tenure and promotion are any guide (and I’m open to debate on that score), I’ve done well over the 25 years I’ve endeavored in this realm. But I’ve encountered the limits of educational liberalism as I’ve grown into a blogger over the last couple of years.

In a regular blog for Shambhala SunSpace I address topics at the intersections of earth science, dharma (teachings of the Buddha), and mindfulness practice. Sometimes the blog takes me into political realms, at other times I reflect on historical and current events, and occasionally I write a book review–all of it infused with a geological gaze. Although my institution’s response to this robust engagement with the blogosphere has been tepid, my enthusiasm for this public arena continues unabated. Here’s why.

To me, blogging is a practice that facilitates my aspiration to be present in the moment. When I blog, I engage with thoughts on the front burners of my brain, if you will. Very often these ideas relate to contemporary environmental issues, problems that affect all beings and require mindful awareness and attentive exchanges. Blogging supports my intention to stay grounded in wisdom and inclined towards benevolence. The Academy may feed my head but the blogosphere also nourishes my heart. Posts have put me in dialogue with some of the most progressive thinkers of our day. I’ve been honored to have had opportunities to think together with artists from Marfa, Texas and musicians in Minnesota, as well as acclaimed journalist and author Naomi Klein and Heinz Award winner Sandra Steingraber–chances that never would have presented themselves had I not put my ideas out into the world in real-time. And my site stats for my personal website, EarthDharma.org, keep me going.

In contrast, though I’m always passionate about fresh topics, devotion wanes as the present becomes the past. In 2010 I researched, wrote and had accepted for publication a peer-reviewed paper on the somewhat forgotten literary naturalist John Burroughs. And although I’ve had the pleasure of discussing the life and work of Burroughs–early champion of Walt Whitman, travel companion of President Teddy Roosevelt, and close friend of historical giants including John Muir and Henry Ford–with a few dozen scholars at conferences, my paper languishes in the queue for print publication.  When the paper does eventually appear (promised now for 2012), the handful of people who read “Journeys, Contemplation, and Home: Reflections on John Burroughs in the Caribbean” in peer-reviewed journal that has accepted it, will be a narrow audience out of sync with my intellectual passion and I’ll be well onto other subjects. Does being in sync with my intellectual passion matters to anyone but me? Perhaps.

As reported in the New York Times yesterday, other scientists are drawn to “open science” and the fast communication of ideas that it offers. I’ll be following with interest the sixth annual ScienceOnline conference that begins tomorrow at North Carolina State University. Sessions such as “Networking Beyond the Academy” or “Undergraduate Education: Collaborating to Create the Next Generation of Open Scientists” might put me in touch with other interdisciplinary scientist-educators attracted to post-disciplinary open science.

After blogging for two years, I’m working on turning my posts into a book that examines the dharma as taught by Earth. I know this makes me sound marginal. But that’s okay. According to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, evolution by natural selection occurs when vast periods of stasis are punctuated by the innovations of isolates along the periphery of ecosystems. The disciplinarily-bound Academy has operated the same way for centuries and in our troubled times innovation such as open science operating at the margins of the educational system may be among the changes needed to assure survival of 21st century species.


1. Jenny Magnes (@magnes123) - January 21, 2012

I am with you Jill! The current academic publishing scheme is so narrowing. Sadly, academics are creating this type of environment for themselves…

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