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Blogging science

Three guys, three PhDs in science (one pending), write three blogs on science policy. Their blog posts – and personal lives – provide interesting insights into the state of science training in Canada today.

by Léo Charbonneau

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It started a week before the release of the federal budget in the spring of 2009. Rob Annan, who had recently fashioned a career niche for himself by offering his services as a grant writer and scientific editor, thought that starting a blog about science-funding opportunities might help him build some credibility and make some contacts. So he launched the Canada Research Funding blog.

Then came the federal budget. It was greeted negatively by many in the research community because it cut funding to the federal research granting agencies.

“I’m a political animal,” says Dr. Annan. “I follow politics and like to talk about politics and couldn’t help myself from editorializing on the blog. It started to become more political than informational.”

About a month later, he was contacted by a professor who had started a campaign called Don’t Leave Canada Behind, which was collecting signatures from researchers for an open letter to the Prime Minister, outlining the importance of research funding to Canada’s economic future. Dr. Annan cross-posted the petition to his blog and ended up taking over the administration of the campaign.

The petition attracted more than 2,300 signatories and brought a lot of traffic to Dr. Annan’s blog, which now goes by the name The Researcher Forum (though it still hosts the Don’t Leave Canada Behind campaign).

Dr. Annan blogs on a variety of topics that all fall under the broad umbrella of science and innovation in Canada. Recent posts include the provocatively titled “Whither the NRC?” and “Why Canada is bush-league at innovation.” The blog receives up to 1,000 visits in a good week, he says, although traffic fell somewhat during the summer.

“Like a lot of bloggers,” says Dr. Annan, “I tend to watch the stats fairly closely. Sometimes you get a post out there and you see it go through the roof and you know it’s being passed around. That’s really gratifying when you’ve obviously hit a nerve. It’s nice to get the feedback.”

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Dr. Annan earned a BA in English literature from Queen’s University in the early 1990s, followed by a BSc from the University of British Columbia and then a PhD in biochemistry at McGill University in January 2009. He now calls Ottawa home.

When he graduated from McGill, “I decided I wasn’t going to pursue an academic career.” Many of the postdoctoral fellows in his department were having to face the reality that tenure-track faculty positions “weren’t going to materialize for them,” he says. “Suddenly they found themselves 10, 15 years into an academic career and the one and only goal they had wasn’t going to happen. … I realized that I didn’t want to jump into that grind.”

It was a tough decision, but married and with three young kids, “I just couldn’t commit the time and move all around the country.” He adds: “Universities could do a better job of making it clear to the students that they recruit that they’re not likely to become tenured professors.”

It’s “a labour of love,” he says of his blog, but the “paying life” takes time away that he’d like to devote to blogging. “I’m not trying to take it to something bigger because I just don’t have the time. It’s a nice sort of pressure release. It gives me a space to think about these things, and it’s encouraging that people are interested in contributing to that conversation.”

For University of Toronto graduate student Jeff Sharom, his blog started not with a budget but with the federal election in the fall of 2008. Led mainly by his colleague Mehrdad Hariri, he and a handful of other grad students and postdoctoral fellows created Science Canada as a “one-stop shop for science policy” on the Internet.

“It was initially conceived to draw public awareness to scientific issues during that election campaign, and then after the election was done we just decided to continue it because it was an interesting endeavour,” explains Mr. Sharom.

While the site uses a blog template, it is technically an aggregator of news and opinion on science policy published elsewhere. Mr. Sharom does not write any original content, mainly due to time constraints – he’s finishing up a PhD in molecular genetics.

Traffic to the site is steady, at about 400 hits a week, he says. “I hope that people find it a useful place to go to do some shopping for science news. I think it would be beneficial if more people in our democracy took an active interest in scientific issues.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Sharom’s colleague, Mr. Hariri, has created another website called Science Policy; he was the chief organizer of the inaugural Canadian Science Policy Conference held last October in Toronto. Mr. Sharom sat on the conference organizing committee. (Dr. Annan of the Researcher Forum covered the conference extensively in his blog). This year’s conference is being held in Montreal, Oct. 20-22.

Editor's Note: Mr. Hariri and Mr. Sharom have written extensively on the subject of science policy, including a popular University Affairs opinion column. It is one of the most read articles on the website.

As for his own plans, Mr Sharom responds, “To be honest, it’s actually ‘who knows?’ right now. I am cognizant of that fact the academic career path is not what it once was and that most of us who are PhDs and postdocs will not end up being a professor. That was my original plan at the start of graduate school, but since then it’s been revised and re-revised.”

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That’s a refrain familiar to David Kent. That’s because his blog, The Black Hole, co-authored by colleague Beth Snow, has as its primary focus the perilous plight of science trainees in Canada (hence the blog’s name).

Dr. Kent, who holds a PhD in genetics from UBC, is blunt about the prospects for science trainees: “It is not an attractive field.” A lot of “bright, motivated people,” he says, are being driven away by the demands being placed on them.

Dr. Kent considers himself lucky: he holds a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research that he’s taking at the University of Cambridge. He’s working with a clinician-researcher studying blood-borne diseases and has his sights on a tenure-track position. His colleague, Dr. Snow, has left academia and now works as an evaluation specialist in public health (although she still teaches as a sessional instructor at UBC).

Like the Science Canada site, the Black Hole blog has its origins in a past gathering of grad students and postdocs, in this instance in Vancouver. It was 2005, and at the time there were few organizations speaking up for these groups, says Dr. Kent.

He and his colleagues met regularly over several months to hash out the various issues facing “the science enterprise” and eventually narrowed their focus to three main concerns: the education and training of scientists, the communication of science, and the support structure for trainees. Over the next three years, the group “hammered away” at these issues and assembled a large repository of information.

Then, as most of the group members began to drift away to pursue their careers, Dr. Kent decided to post the information online as a public resource in the form of The Black Hole blog, launched in October 2009. The material needed to be “scripted” to make it more readable, says Dr. Kent, but the research had all been done.

“It’s a very academic philosophy: put it out there, let people read it and see what other people are thinking, and then build on it,” he explains. Popular posts include “Say no to the second postdoc!” and more recently “Old debate, more participants: What do 80 percent of PhD holders do for a career?

The blog receives about 100 to 200 hits a day, although traffic spiked this past spring “due to budget 2010 and the sheer panic it invoked in the postdoc community,” says Dr. Kent, referring to a provision in the federal budget that removed the tax-exempt status of postdoctoral fellowships.

Dr. Kent, who recently joined the executive of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars, plans to continue with the blog and would like to add to the variety of opinion in it. “The comments sections are great, and people have been contributing there, but I’m targeting certain people to come in and share their opinions in their areas of expertise or interest.” There are many more important conversations, he says, that need to be had.

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Comments on this Article

It'd be neat to see where these guys are now, if they're still blogging, and whether they work in or out of academia.

Posted by Jen, Apr 3, 2014 4:28 PM

Hi! Glad to see Rob, David & Beth being featured in your article on science blogging (in Canada?). There are a few other folks, Gregor Wolbring (Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem...), David Ng (The World's Fair, all manner of human creativity on display), Pascal Lapointe (Je vote pour la Science), John Dupuis (Confessions of a Science Librarian) and me too. Cheers, Maryse

Posted by Maryse de la Giroday, Sep 24, 2010 4:10 PM


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