In June, Derek Lowe got some data. Not just any data, but promising results on a new drug. An eight-year veteran of the drug discovery pipeline, Lowe had been waiting three years for this moment. As with most scientists reaching a point of experimental insight, Lowe says, "I hardly know what to do with myself." However, he's not saying this to his boss or colleagues. He's saying it to the whole world over the Internet.
Lowe is a blogger. He also works for the pharmaceutical giant Bayer. It's a unique combination that places him out on the Internet as one of the few industry insiders who is keeping a blog of their daily scientific thoughts. Blogs, (short for Web logs) seem to be exploding as private citizens "talk" on the Internet about every topic under the sun, from parenting to politics. By comparison, science blogs (or at least blogs by life scientists) are relatively rare. "As far as I know, I'm alone, and that surprises me," says Lowe, whose blog is named
Blogging is a form of communication that is sweeping through business, and although it's yet to significantly break into the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, few believe it's going to stop at their gates. So, if you're not reading one, or better yet, writing one, you're missing the opportunities others are taking advantage of.
It's impossible to get away from blogs these days, largely because they number more than nine million, with another one created every 7.4 seconds. Although it's hard to estimate how many of these are science blogs, Technorati, a real-time blog-tracking service, finds about 700,000 science blog posts on the Internet at any one time.
Starting a Science Blog
You read the literature, think about what's going on in your field, and likely have a list of topics to debate. So why haven't you started a science blog? If you're not sure how, here's a quick guide to warm you up.
1. Pick a theme to discuss, and choose a name. Whether it's about the literature, your experiments, or how science is affecting the world, select something that gets your scientific spark going. Some names that are already out there:
2. Look for a service to host your blog. Several free services already exist such as Blogger.com or LiveJournal.com. Others such as TypePad.com and BlogIdentity.com charge a fee that ranges from $50 to $100 a year. All these services will get you up and running in no time. If you're more adventurous and technically advanced, Moveable Type is another choice. This program requires somewhere to host your site and some skills in Web publishing.
3. Start writing. Often bloggers get comfortable writing by first referencing other blogs they read and then commenting on them. (You can also add an "about" button to tell people why you're there at this point.) "Having an online diary available seems to help them [bloggers] translate daily experiences into words," says Tamara Zemlo of the Science Advisory Board. And it's a thrill to be part of an informal but scientifically valid discussion, adds Zemlo.
4. Link to other Blogs. Once you're comfortable, start linking to other blogs so that people will notice you through services such as those at Technorati.com. Also make sure your RSS (really simple syndication) feed is enabled – most blogging software will do this for you – so people will know when your blog updates. "Web logs don't happen without RSS," says Greg Tyrelle of
It's easy to get started, and the more advanced features will come with time. Blogs can offer scientists a new way to process and organize scientific information, while liberally debating the implications. Feel free to join in.
One reason there are so many blogs is that blog technology is quite simple. For example, any student, scientist, or biotech employee can go to
Apart from Lowe and Tyrelle, a few other life scientists are taking advantage of the ease of the blog format to discuss research (see list). One is Jeff Bizzaro, a biochemist who started a blog on bioinformatics.org, a 15,000-member organization that deals with the field of bioinformatics. The idea of the blog is to "create something of a utopian place for people to share ideas," says Bizzaro.
Another is the Science Advisory Board (SAB), a panel of 25,000 life science professionals that runs nine different blogs. "Scientists were saying to us that there wasn't a venue where they could freely write about theirs and others' work," says Tamara Zemlo, executive director of communications at SAB. With this in mind, Zemlo helped create blogs such as
Lowe, Tyrelle, and Bizzaro aren't just posting comments into a vacuum; people are reading their blogs and commenting on them. So, although only a relatively small group of scientists have blogs, hundreds of people are commenting on such blogs and thousands of other blogs that fall into the popular science category. It seems you can no longer develop a drug or bio-product, make a business decision, or publish a paper, without someone discussing it.
No editors or media organizations manage the comments or screen content of blogs, says Lowe. It's good to keep this in mind, particularly when dealing with what might be proprietary information. Some workers have lost their jobs over blog postings, including one contract worker at Microsoft, who crossed a line with information the company thought inappropriate.
Lowe has some advice: Be open with your boss. "When I started blogging, I went to my supervisor and to my company's legal department and talked to them," says Lowe. "They said, 'Well, as long as you don't set yourself up as a spokesman, then go wild."' Lowe doesn't go wild – he's shy about specifics of his work, and he doesn't talk about his company – but he still has a lot of fun.
BUSINESSES TAKES NOTICE
Businesses are paying more attention to blogs, as blogs get more attention from readers. Tyrelle's
What seems to bring people to
Others see opportunity. Eric Gerritsen's search for a better way for the pharmaceutical industry to do research led him to blogs. "You have a huge amount of money going into drug discovery compared to only a small number of drugs approved by the FDA each year," says Gerritsen, who runs a small investment company called Global Seed Capital, which is based in the Boston area. "It looks to me like a huge productivity problem," he says.
This might be happening because information is trapped within companies and individual labs, says Gerritsen. In an effort to get it flowing Gerritsen recently created
At Ease with Information
Greg Tyrelle was sick of it. But he was six months into a molecular biology PhD at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and he wasn't sure what else to do. "I was kind of lost and just started to wander around," he says. Fortunately, Tyrelle had a peculiar fascination with Slashdot.org, an anything goes blog.
Slashdot gave Tyrelle an idea: "I thought, wouldn't it be great if molecular biology and bioinformatics has a site in the style of a Slashdot blog." It was 1999 at the time and Tyrelle was already fooling around with the lab server while wondering what to do with his PhD. Tyrelle set about making
Starting a blog as a scientist in 1999 situates Tyrelle as a pioneer in a new wave of communication that is only hitting the rest of the scientific community now. "I was expecting it
Today, Tyrelle is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan, having finished a PhD in bioinformatics about a year ago. Posting comments and debating science on
Tyrelle's not quite sure where he's going to end up. "I'm kind of disillusioned with academia," he says, "so if I had to give my pick, I'd be interested in providing tools and services online for scientists, perhaps to do things like Web logging better." In this regard,
Many CEOs and employees outside the pharmaceutical and biotech sector are already exploiting this type of information conduit. The most famous is
Here are just a few of the science blogs out there now
Others in case you need more:
Blogs aren't all about business opportunities; some academic researchers find a haven in them as well. "I get a lot of ideas and feel I'm at the edge of science news [because of blogs]," says Michael Imbeault, a virology PhD student at the CHUL Research Center in Quebec. Imbeault formerly ran
Kevin Kubarych agrees, but also considers blogs a better way to use information in the lab. "As a collaboration tool it's absolutely prefect," says Kubarych, who runs
As more academics pick up blogs, scientific publishing may also change. Not only can you bypass traditional publishing with a blog, but also tools are becoming available to better organize information. One example is
Even more exciting is this: How about a blog after every scientific paper published? Here scientists could debate results in real-time right on a journal's homepage. "The idea is being kicked around," says Lowe, "and it's a hell of a good idea." Nobody is there yet, but Lowe, Tyrelle, and Zemlo all hope this will soon become a reality.
Overall, science blogs run by scientists and industry insiders are just getting started. "This whole thing is still very immature," says Gerritsen. This may be due to scientists' caution about retribution, unfamiliarity with the technology, or not grasping the potential impact yet. Nevertheless, people should be jumping on blogs, says Gerritsen. "I expect to see this within the next year."
The spark that might really get things going is a blog by a famous scientist, which could add a great deal of credibility and insight (similar to what Bob Lutz did for CEO blogs). "If James Watson had a blog," says Bizzaro, "I'd read it, and I think a lot of other scientists would too."