I’m sitting here putting the finishing touches to 2020science.org—a new science blog—and having the latest in a long stream of panic attacks: What on earth am I doing? Who wants to read yet another tedious list of personal musings, what makes me think I have anything interesting to say, and where did I get the delusion that I can actually write anyway?
As I type this, the answers are crystal clear: Everyone’s surely too busy to read yet another blog (especially one biased towards responsible science and technology); in the cold light of reality I most likely have the wit of a 5 watt light bulb; and I should have listened to my freshman college tutor, who was definitely under no illusion about whether I could write!
Yet under the remote possibility that my perception is temporarily impaired, it’s worth examining exactly why I am putting myself through this ordeal.
Last September, I was asked to contribute on an occasional basis to the SAFENANO blog—a U.K.-based initiative dedicated to underpinning the safe development and use of nanotechnologies. Rather foolishly, I set myself the task of contributing to the blog an average of once a week. The rationale was simple: it forced me to keep abreast of the latest progress in developing safe nanotechnologies; the format allowed me to explore some as-yet half baked but nevertheless interesting ideas; and there was the hope that trying to produce something original and readable on a weekly basis might just teach me a thing or two. And as an added bonus, there was always the possibility of someone actually reading the stuff I posted!
That was a year ago, and by on large I have kept to the self-imposed writing task. And in doing so, I have discovered that I actually quite like the discipline of blogging. I have also discovered in the process that there is more I want to write about than the folks at SAFENANO would probably be comfortable with (although I must confess, a few fringe-blogs did slip through the net this last year). And so was born the idea of a new blog; one that would give me the freedom to go beyond the bound of what a respectable nanotechnology safety blog could accommodate.
Having reached this point, two challenges arose almost immediately: A relatively easy one—what to write about; and a much tougher one—what to call the new blog!
The first challenge led me back to what interests me, and what I want to achieve through writing about it. The interest can be summed up fairly simply: How can science and technology be used most effectively in the service of society? But this deceptively simple question hides many complex issues, including:
- Does the current way that we “do science” give us a good return on the investment?
- How is cool science best translated into constructive technologies?
- How are the potential downsides of emerging technologies best dealt with?
- What role should citizens, industry, government and (of course) academics play in determining the future course of science and technology?
- How do you engage everyday people in science?
- And just as importantly: How do you engage scientists in society?
These and similar questions provide a rich landscape to explore. But more critically, they are important questions that need clear answers if we are to ensure the most responsible use of science and technology in a shrinking world with a growing population. Safe nanotechnology is a part of this landscape. But the issues extend beyond the science and technology of the small, to areas as diverse as research strategies, public engagement, ethics, and even religion.
So much for the content, but what should such a wide-ranging blog be called? Tricky one! Smartscience.org was at the top of the list, but someone smarter than me got there first. Thecivicscientist.org got some serious attention, but was vetoed for veering towards being over-earnest, and being something of a turn-off to anyone who has suffered through tedious “civics” lessons. Things got so desperate that even options like sciencepunk.org weren’t dismissed entirely out of hand (in the end, my wife drew the line at this one!).
2020science.org was something of a compromise—embodying the idea of looking forward with clarity, while being easy to type. Not the best perhaps, but fit for purpose I think.
Which brings me back to my original question: is this really a good idea?
I’m still not entirely sure it is. But having thought through why I started out on this venture, I think it is worth a shot. Developing a healthy relationship between science, technology and society is important—increasingly so as the challenge of ensuring an acceptable quality of life for all in the 21st century is going to depend increasingly on emerging technologies. I may not be the brightest bulb in the drawer, and I still have a trick or two to learn about communicating effectively. But exploring how as a society we can use science and technology wisely is my job—it’s what I do as Chief Science Advisor at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, and what I spend most of my time engaged in.
And if most people are too busy for yet another blog? Well, I can always fall back on the defence that it’s the discipline of writing that matters, not the readership. That is, until I suffer the next panic attack!
Even though writing under the banner of “thecivicscientist.org” was dropped, it’s only fair to say Neal Lane’s concept of the Civic Scientist will have a pronounced influence on this weblog. More of this in later posts… (I should also come clean and admit that there is already a “civic scientist” blogger out there).
At the time of writing, wordpress.com—the host site for this blog—was hosting 4,175,409 blogs, and reporting 127,651 new postings; containing 31,979,307 words. This post represents an additional 900 words—a stunningly small 0.003% of the day’s output. No wonder I’m having panic attacks! Time to reach for the brown bag again I think…