Heather Buschman, Ph.D, scientific communications manager at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, explains why she and others blog at Beaker, the Institute’s science blog. Heather will speak on the expert panel at our ScienceOnline event on October 22, 2012.
At Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, it became apparent a few years ago that we needed a new way to communicate the Institute’s science to the lay public. We produced a quarterly newsletter and we issued press releases when necessary, but many smaller discoveries, events, and other tidbits slipped through the communications cracks. We lacked the ability to share breaking news. So, in March 2010, we published the first post on our blog, Beaker. Since then, we’ve shared nearly 500 blog posts on everything from autophagy to zebrafish. We’ve used Beaker to tackle issues like NIH support for translational research and to show our support for Prop 29, the California voter initiative that proposed to fund cancer research by increasing the state’s tobacco tax. We’ve covered our wacky game show-style fundraising events and paid tribute to a beloved supporter who passed away. We’ve reported on more than 100 research publications and shared more than a few personal stories.
It’s a lot of work to keep this hungry beast fed—we try to publish new posts three times a week. Why do we do it? Here are 9 reasons (in no particular order) we blog at Sanford-Burnham:
- To increase the public understanding of science. These days everyone needs to understand complex scientific information—to make personal health care decisions, to vote on initiatives and elect representatives who will shape scientific policies, to make healthy consumer choices, to serve on a jury, and more. It’s up to individual scientists, research institutions, and funding agencies to help educate the public. By far, the most read Beaker blog post is DNA 101. It doesn’t even mention Sanford-Burnham or our research, but it seems to be something that a lot of people want to know about.
- To keep up with the daily news cycle. Like most institutions, we not only produce our own news stories, we also want to earn coverage in traditional news outlets (newspapers, magazines, TV, etc.). The conventional way to let reporters know what’s going on is to send them a press release. But many journalists are growing weary of the dry, formulaic press release. I can’t say I blame them. We believe that blog posts are becoming the new press release. Blogs allow for more context, images, video, and interaction. Beaker is a place to report news, but also to tell engaging stories. We can even write in the first person! What’s more, as the pressure to produce more news faster, to feed the 24-hour news cycle with an ever-shrinking staff, we find that reporters are increasingly turning to places like Beaker as an information source.
- To provide useful, timely information. When there’s big news in the world and we want to provide background information or expert commentary on it, we turn to Beaker. For example, when John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last week for their work reprogramming mature cells into pluripotent cells, we quickly responded with a Beaker post called “Stem Cells 101.” When the FDA approved Truvada, the first HIV prevention drug, we asked our HIV experts to comment on it.
- To demonstrate your tax dollars at work. And make the case for continued NIH funding! Tough economic times mean everyone has to make tough budgetary decisions. We hope that by explaining our research findings in lay terms, Beaker is playing at least a small part in demonstrating to the general public and our elected officials how NIH dollars (and funding from other federal and state agencies) are used and why it’s important to keep investing in basic and translational medical research. For example, check out this post about a recent study funded by the NIH and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
- To give people a place to engage us in conversation. What’s important to the general public? What do people want to know more about? How are we doing? We’d never know unless we provided a place where people can comment on our stories. Right now, we’re also running a short reader survey on Beaker. (Please participate at beaker.sanfordburnham.org!)
- To build an easily searchable “history” of our research findings. By posting new content roughly three times a week for the past two and a half years, we’ve built an impressive library of news, video, images, quotes, disease-related information, and more. Beaker keeps it all nicely categorized, tagged, and easily searchable. Barely a week goes by that we don’t benefit from this, whether it’s a potential donor wondering what sort of diabetes research we’re doing or a reporter seeking stories for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
- To show the human side of science. Let’s face it: most people think all scientists are nerdy men who where white coats and, well, lack social skills. We use Beaker to tell stories about the people behind the science—some who even look like this. We’ve also shared some very personal stories. Here’s mine.
- To make it easy to follow us. People and reporters can choose to receive our content by visiting our site, subscribing by RSS feed or email, or by following us on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. We don’t have to flood your inboxes with unwanted emails.
- To let people know they can make a difference by donating. Most of Sanford-Burnham’s revenue comes in the form of grants, but we are a nonprofit organization that also relies on philanthropic support. Beaker helps us remind people that they can directly support medical research by donating to Sanford-Burnham. No marathon running or mustache growing required!
Why do you blog? Let us know in the comments below!