Science Borealis – Lighting up Canadian Scicomm

25 August 2014 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Image courtesy of Science Borealis.

Image courtesy of Science Borealis.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jenny Ryan, a communications manager at Canadian Science Publishing and a founding member of the team behind the Canadian digital science salon Science Borealis. Ryan writes here about the evolution of Science Borealis from concept to reality, lessons learned during that process, and what the project’s organizers hope to do next.

What happens when a bunch of Canadian science bloggers team up? Well, in the case of Science Borealis they turn their Tweets into actions, round up the community, and build a showcase (and hopefully a brighter future) for science in Canada (aka #cancomm). You can read a bit about the Science Borealis journey from some of the key founding members, from prelaunch (Coming soon by Sarah Boon) to launch (Science Borealis launch by me).

Science Borealis was the brainchild of a group of like-minded bloggers who felt that there was a real need to showcase the excellent writing going on in Canadian science blogs, to provide a portal to discover this wealth of accessible science information, and to create a place for readers and bloggers to share, engage, and connect.

The platform has so far syndicated more than 85 fantastic and diverse blogs, including blogs from SciLog bloggers Chris Buddle and Malcolm Campbell -- both amazing Canadians! We’ve also delivered a weekly dose of our own original content via our editorial blog since launching in November 2013. In addition, the Science Borealis twitter feed is a great community resource for scicommers far and wide.

Jenny Ryan. Photo courtesy of Jenny Ryan.

Jenny Ryan. Photo courtesy of Jenny Ryan.

The true beginnings for Science Borealis can be traced back to two key events. In December 2012, Maryse de la Girody posted a roundup of Canadian science blogs and suggested the idea of a blog aggregator. Sarah Boon, Steph Taylor, and Raymond Nakamura responded in the comments and offered to help flesh out the idea. Seeking a funder, they contacted me at Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) in January 2013...

Around the same time, in February 2013, a session was held at the Science Online conference in Raleigh, NC (#scio13) in which it was suggested that there was NO science blogging in Canada. This fired up some of the attendees who knew otherwise…

“For me the idea was really kickstarted at Scio13. Canada was seen as a place utterly lacking in science communication, and it was even suggested that it was time to ‘smartbomb’ Canada. I knew that wasn’t true, but perception is everything and I wanted to change that.” –Mike Spear, Genome Alberta.

[Editor's note: the goal of the Scio13 session was not to belittle the efforts of Canadian science bloggers, but to spur conversation about Canadian science communication -- and it was clearly successful in that regard. Colin Schultz, who co-moderated the session with Marie-Claire Shanahan, wrote about it here.]

Mike and Jenny sought funding from their organizations, CSP found a developer, and the volunteer team (which later included Mary Seligy, Kim Moynahan, and Pascal Lapointe) worked with the Canadian science communication community to create a database of bloggers and brainstorm aggregator requirements, meeting regularly to keep the project on track.

The greatest overall success for Science Borealis is that we went from a zygote of an idea to a fully functional website in about nine months with limited funding but lots of volunteer energy and enthusiasm. It was a textbook example of putting communication tools to work, as we never met in person but corresponded mainly through e-mail, Google Docs, and teleconferences.

“We knew very little about the technical requirements, costs, and such, so were lucky to get on board with CSP to get a lot of that technical support and financial backing. Our initial concept is a lot broader than what we have now, including more outreach and community engagement, but we’re still early in the game and have a lot further to go to bring our full vision to fruition.” –Sarah Boon, editorial manager of Science Borealis.

Science Borealis has been very positively received from the beginning, which may have been due to the perceived attacks on science in Canada through muzzling of federal scientists and cuts to federal science funding. [Editor’s note: you can read more on Canada’s science communication in this guest post from Stephen Strauss.]

Both the team and many in the science communication community realized that making solid, engaging science writing discoverable and accessible to a broad public audience could only help improve science understanding, raise awareness of science-related topics, and just maybe have a positive impact on policy makers.

The Canadian science communication community was supportive and engaged throughout the development process, from helping to pick the name to finding the perfect logo to testing a beta version of the site. Bloggers from across the country came onboard to syndicate their work, and the original Development Team has now blossomed into a high-calibre Editorial Team of top science writers and editors. These include Hannah Hoag (co-author of The Science Writers’ Handbook), Brian Owens (science journalist formerly at Nature Publishing Group), Pascal Lapointe (Editor-in-Chief at Quebec’s Agence Science-Presse), Tyler Irving (Engineering Media Officer at the Science Media Centre of Canada), and Robert Aboukhalil (Editor-in-Chief of Technophilic). Our Outreach Team has built a strong following on Twitter and Facebook, highlighting key blog posts for public consumption and sharing online.

Yet, as with any project there have been some disappointments.

“I think we were successful from the beginning with launching and getting going, but I don't think we've been as good at making connections with all parts of the Canadian science communication community. We got really focused on the avalanche of technical stuff we had to wade through to get things up and running, when maybe we should have spent more time on PR and building relationships with groups like the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA), Banff Science Communications, Laurentian Grad Program in Science Communication, and others. So that's what we’re working on now, to build those connections and refine our operating structure.” –Sarah Boon

Organic growth and grass roots support have helped us thus far, and as Sarah says community-building and networking with larger organizations and other groups that share our common goals will be important next steps to help guide future directions for Science Borealis.

“For me I realised that science communications in Canada needs a strong boost, and that it’s least likely going to come from large organizations, or those with lots of money. It is going to make gains through the push from smaller, more nimble organizations, individuals who want to see more communication about science, and with the pull from people who want to talk more about science in general.” –Mike Spear

Here we are 18 months since the project began and 10 months since the platform launched, we’ve learned some important lessons:

  • A group of committed volunteers can achieve great things, and can really make a difference. Our team has been phenomenal throughout this process.
  • Even a volunteer-run effort needs a plan, a structure around which to coalesce, and a standard against which to determine whether we've achieved what we set out to do. We're working on this now with our business plan, but it might have been helpful to have that right from the start.
  • You can't do everything by yourself - it's important to have a good team of people with all different specialties that can contribute to different aspects of such a large project.
  • Regular meetings are critical to keeping everyone up to date and on track.
  • If you build it they will come (haha).

Looking ahead we are working hard to develop a more formal organizational structure so we can meet those original broader goals about community building and engagement that Sarah mentioned. We’re very grateful for the support from fellow scicommers like Matt – thanks for giving us this forum, for supporting our endeavour since the beginning, and for wearing (and tweeting) your Science Borealis t-shirt with pride!


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