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Social Media for Scientists Part 2: You Do Have Time.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you look at the comments on my last post, it seems like everyone agrees that scientists should be more active online. But when I gave my talk last week, I was hardly met with open arms by the scientists themselves. The grad students were mostly on board, but the tenured faculty were more hesitant. They asked questions like Is there any real evidence that social media makes a difference? What about embargoes and confidentiality clauses? But by far, the most vehement response from the seasoned scientists I talked to is that they simply don’t have time. They have to run a lab, mentor students, teach classes, not to mention do some stuff that that isn’t work-related. Who has time to learn how to use social media platforms, yet alone actually use them?

I already explained why it is essential that more scientists get on social media. From the responses to my post, I’d say at least the public reading my blog agrees. So I was going to focus this second post on what the scientists get out of the deal. But before I do that, I want to address this issue of time. The title of my talk was no accident. I said “every lab should tweet” – not “every scientist should tweet”. I get it. Many scientists really are very busy. I know the PIs of my lab are – they are directly overseeing 32 other lab members, not to mention the other students whose committees they are on. They spend an exorbitant amount of time trying to make sure the lab stays well stocked and has the funding for supplies, stipends, etc. Our lab has published almost 200 papers in the 8 years since it was established. That kind of productivity doesn’t leave room for a lot of free time.

So maybe my PIs don’t have time to write a blog post or two every month. Maybe they can’t stay up to date on twitter and facebook. But you know what? They don’t have to do it alone. We have 34 people in our lab. As I pointed out to my PIs, that means if everyone committed to writing one post a year, we’d average more than two a month. Heck, we all have to work with the press office anyway on any papers we are first author on, and that takes a heck of a lot more time than writing up a little post. Instead of hours per week, a lab like ours could succeed in social media with everyone committing a couple hours a year. If people still want to argue they don’t have time, well, all I can say is bull.

Every lab has the time to do this – even the small ones. I’m not saying you have to send out a tweet every hour or post to Google+ and Facebook daily. You don’t have to spend 4 hours a day replying to facebook posts or commenting like crazy on every blog post on every paper related to your field. The goal isn’t for you to become the most well-read scientist or science blogger in your field – the goal is for you and your research to be out there. So maybe you just write a blog post when you publish a new paper – and maybe that’s once every year or two. That’s OK. Or maybe you want to get more involved in the conversation, but you’re not comfortable jumping on all the networks at once – fine, stick to whichever ones you’re most comfortable with. Try talking to your grad students, who probably have been on some of these sites for years and can show you how they work.

Getting involved with social media is like working out. You know you should do it, even if you find excuses not to. You feel like you don’t have the time, but it’s worth your while to make the time. And no one expects you to go from never having lifted a weight to Mr. Universe pageants overnight. Just start with the basics, force yourself to put in a little effort, and push yourself just past where you’re comfortable.

Because, really, you do have time. I get that individual scientists might not have the time to be really active in social media. But as a lab – heck, as a department if you have to spread the workload around – you have enough time to keep the public up to speed with your research and engage in a dialogue about the science you do.

Saying you don’t have time isn’t just an easy cop out. Just think for a moment about what kind of message we are sending when we say that. “Hey, guys, thanks for all that funding from NSF or NIH that your taxes paid for. We’re doing stellar stuff with it – really groundbreaking. We’re gonna change the world with this… what? You want to know more? Sorry. I don’t have time to explain it.”

In a way, the general public are our customers. Every day, we ask them to spend their time and money supporting science. We tell them what we do is vital, that they need to tell their representatives that science and science funding matter. We want their votes and their tax dollars and for them to take the time to understand the issues scientifically, but then we say we don’t have time to really interact with them? To walk them through what we do, why it’s cool, and get them excited about our research?

Imagine if companies had that kind of attitude. There’s a reason that Apple is so popular – they not only provide cool new products, they have dedicated staff waiting to answer questions or provide training so that everyone can get the most out of what they sell. There would be a lot fewer people interested in buying Apple products if the conversation went more like this: “Hey, Steve Jobs here. We’ve got these great computers. Really magical stuff. Life-changing technology. You really should buy one… what? You want someone to show you the ropes so you can use all our cool new features? Look, if you can’t figure it out for yourselves, we just don’t have the time to explain it to you.”

We can’t rely solely on press offices and journalists to be our liaisons to the rest of the world. If we want people to invest in science – emotionally, physically or monetarily – we have to show them why they should. We have to make at least a little time to communicate. If we really don’t have the time to do that, then we’re doing it wrong.

Posts In This Series:

Christie Wilcox About the Author: Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. Follow on Google+. Follow on Twitter @NerdyChristie.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Blueskyscience 5:15 am 09/30/2011

    Very well said Christie, it is vitally important that scientists do more to engage directly with the public.

    It’s not just about getting people excited about science, and enabling them to understand how seemingly esoteric research being performed in the lab today can have a big impact on all our lives a few years down the line, it’s also about being prepared to respond swiftly and effectively to those who attack science.

    Last year Allyson Bennett wrote an excellent post on the Speaking of Research blog, that explained why “no comment” is not an adequate response, and how scientists can do more to respond to

    Scientists need to do more to ensure that their voices are heard by the public, while some press offices and science journalists to a very good job they cannot do it all, and they certainly cannot do it without serious engagement by scientists. The truth is that there are far too few people out there who will stand up for science while the scientists get on with their work in the lab, scientists must be prepared to do a lot of this work themselves. As Christie correctly points out this is a burden that can be greatly reduced if it is shared, and social media offers many ways to share it. Who knows there may be a great communicator sitting in your lab just waiting to be discovered!

    Link to this
  2. 2. 7:15 am 09/30/2011

    yes! yes! yes!

    Link to this

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