Science blogging and science policy

I’m super-excited to be part of a panel later this week*, on science blogging and science policy in Canada. It’s part of the Canadian Science Policy conference happening in Ottawa, and this particular panel is hosted by Science Borealis. This session has broader goals of understanding and strengthening the links between science communication and science policy, and also promises to be interactive and provide perspectives from panelists on effective blogs, and blog writing. It’s also exciting that a blog post will result from this workshop, so the audience can see a product resulting from attending the session (there will also be a Tweet-up in Ottawa on Thursday evening – FUN!)

But wait… Imposter syndrome approaching! Although I blog frequently, what do I know about science policy or about how my blogging activities link to science policy?

Ok, let’s start with science policy, defined by Wikipedia as

Science policy is an area of public policy which is concerned with the policies that affect the conduct of the science and research enterprise, including the funding of science, often in pursuance of other national policy goals such as technological innovation to promote commercial product development, weapons development, health care and environmental monitoring. Science policy also refers to the act of applying scientific knowledge and consensus to the development of public policies.

That helps. Sort of. I should say, the part about applying scientific knowledge to consensus and development of public policies helps, and I think this is where blogging has a big role to play. To me, blogging is a lot about dissemination of research (as a scientist in Canada) or about sharing ideas around science or higher education in Canada. For example, blogging a be writing about a recent paper, or thinking about ways to communicate science at an academic conference.

Blogging can really be an effective way to share stories about science, and when they hit the more main-stream media, this can be one small step towards linking science to policy. As an example, after blogging about our research paper on northern beetles, and in combination with a press release from my University, I believe we were able to effectively share our work with a broad audience. Since this work related directly to ecological monitoring and biodiversity conservation in the Arctic, it can perhaps more easily get into the hands of policy makers when we think about northern development in Canada, especially in the context of climate change.

Blogs can also connect to people st a more emotional level: a blog and tweet about a paper on pseudoscorpions, for example, led to a CBC story about curiosity and passion in science. We need curiously and passion for science. We need kids, school-teachers, naturalists, and retired people to have an interest in science, and enthusiasm for science. If people don’t know about what we do as scientists, how will this be fostered? And, of course, we want voters in Canada to know about our science. Votes lead to exciting shifts in the landscape of science in Canada. Blogging can help!

Finally, it’s important to be reminded that the bulk of my research funding comes from Canadians**, and as such, it is my responsibility to let people know how I spend their money! This information is so valuable and plays into politics and policy development in important ways. I want people to be aware of the wonderful science we are doing in Canada whether it is about a diabetes breakthrough or discovering and describing new species of flies.

I’ll finish with a question: what do YOU think about science blogging and science policy? I value your comments, and will bring them to the session one Friday: please share your ideas and opinions.


*the session will be at 13:30, Friday 27 Nov.

**the bulk of my research funding comes from NSERC, paid for by taxpayers of Canada.

SciArt and SciComm at an entomology conference

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual conference, held in Montreal. As usual, it was awesome: it was great to catch up with fiends and colleagues, and to hear about some amazing insect science. There was an active hashtag, too, that you can check it to get a sense of the breadth and depth of entomology in Canada.

A real highlight for me were the amazing conference notes that were sketched by the superbly talented Paul Manning*. I’ve certainly heard of this idea before, and read about how visual note-taking at a conference can provide new insights into the science, and enrich the experience, especially when shared with others. However, seeing this in action was quite special, and I was impressed with how Paul was able to grasp the fundamentals of talks, and draw out the key points. Case in point, check out this sketch of May Berenbaum’s talk on honey bees:


Here’s another example, based on a talk about wasp (Vespula) alarm pheromones, by Sean McCann. Here, Paul guides us through the talk, by using simple arrows, but also uses different coloured boxes to illustrate the ‘introduction’ compared to the ‘methods and results’. The take-home messages are super-clear!


And I am immensely grateful to Paul for doing  a visual sketch of my own talk, about the functional and taxonomic diversity of northern arthropods. It was a dense talk, and covered a range of topics, from ecological monitoring to complex measures used to evaluate functional diversity. Paul captured it very well, and was able to effectively get the main message of the presentation.


In sum, THANK YOU, Paul, for doing this, and illustrating the different ways we think about, draw about, and communicate science, and showing how visual note-taking has immense value. I can imagine Paul will remember those talks long into the future, and he has a permanent record to show for it. Although I dabble in sketching here and there, I’ve yet to give this a try at a scientific conference. I think I ought to bring a sketchbook to my next conference: I’m inspired.


*you can check out more of Paul’s great work on his blog.

How are you doing? Perhaps not “fine”?

When asked “how are you”, many people give a default answer of “fine”. Although that may be true a lot of the time, I worry that not everyone is “fine” all of the time. In my experience, this is especially true at this time of year: the late autumn can be tough on a lot of people, as the semester is no longer new and exciting, and the dark days of November* are ahead.

I’m involved with a lot of initiatives on campus around ‘wellness’ of our community, from mental and physical health, through to trying to best understand our campus resources, and think about ways we can be proactive around well-being. Part of my goal is to increase awareness of services and resources available to everyone, and to ‘check in’ with people as we enter a difficult time of year.

I decided to write a letter to our community, but a member of our communications team suggested a video message may also help to increase awareness. So, here’s the video. It’s low-tech and done without a script, but perhaps the message is relevant to your own community. Please share if that’s the case.


*I personally find November rather tough. A few years ago my amazing and insightful wife suggested I take a photo every day in November, to explore the beauty that the month has to offer. That helped me a lot, and I’m immensely grateful for her suggestion to see beyond the dreariness to embrace colour and texture. Honestly, I think that project helped me with my own mental health, and I no longer dread November to the same degree.



We are in for a great month. It’s not October… it’s Arachtober. It’s a month to celebrate all things Arachnid, from photos, to blog posts and stories about our eight-legged friends. It’s a month to appreciate Arachnids for what they are: stunningly beautiful animals.

A beautiful long-jawed orb-weaver (image by Alex Wild, from "Insects Unlocked".

A beautiful long-jawed orb-weaver (image by Alex Wild, from “Insects Unlocked”.)

To get all set for Arachtober, here are some ways to get involved and to learn about spiders:

First, do check out Africa Gomez’s blog – she’s promised to do daily (yes, DAILY) posts about spiders. Yay!

Be sure to follow Catherine Scott – she is on a terrific campaign to help educate people about spiders, and calm down the nerves and assure folks that the spiders they find are *not* brown recluse spiders. 

This is Catherine Scott, wearing a t-shirt with an important message.

This is Catherine Scott, wearing a t-shirt with an important message.

Be sure to keep an eye on the Arachtober Flickr group. Amazing photos to be found there; this was the first place that Arachtober got started… members of that group tried to post new spider photos daily, throughout the month of October.

For other photos about arachnids, do check out work by Sam Martin, or Thomas Shahan, or Sean McCann, or Alex Wild, to name a few. Here’s an example of Sean’s work:


If you want to find other Archnologists on Twitter, here’s a Twitter List for you.

Want to learn more about Arachnology? Check out the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Here’s a more general post about what to do if you want to be an arachnologist.

Arachnology has a rich and fascinating history. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a wonderful resource: here, you can look at old titles about spiders and on their Flickr page, view stunning plates from those old books and journals.

Have some interests in drawing spiders? Don’t forget to get the anatomy correct! Here’s a post from a 10 year-old who did it right:


Have a read through these great Arachtober posts from the past, from Bug Gwen.

Another great blog to check out, for wonderful spider natural history, comes from “Bug Eric”.

Have a spider and not sure what it is? Sometimes you can surf around on BugGuide and work towards an identification with that. It’s a great resource for Arachnophiles.

Arachtober ends with Halloween, of course. Perhaps viewing some movies featuring spiders is a fine idea.

Oh, and for Halloween, here’s how to make your 3D spider cake (um, too bad about the spider’s anatomy is all wrong. Sigh)

And, finally: SPIDER ROBOT (check around the 7:00 mark):

So, how else will you celebrate Arachtober? Share your thoughts in the comment section, below!

[As many of you know, I’ve been posting weekly with links to stories about arachnids, called “SPIDERDAY“. Given a busy travel schedule this month, Spiderday may be a bit ‘irregular’ – sorry!]

Spider Book!

WE are excited. The “We” is me and Eleanor Spicer Rice, of Buzz Hoot Roar fame, and author of the incredible e-books about ants.

Here’s the really big news…

We are teaming up with The University of Chicago Press, and writing a book about spiders!

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

There are already some really amazing spider books out there – one of our favourites is Rich Bradley’s gem, Common Spiders of North America: it’s beautifully illustrated, rich and in-depth. For those looking to cuddle up with a microscope, there is “Spiders of North America: an identification manual“: that book can unleash your inner taxonomist and help you identify (to genus) most spiders of the region. There are also some regional field guides about spiders, photography books, and detailed books about spider silk, or about general spider biology.

However, more books about spiders are needed! There is so much to say! These amazing arachnids are one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with about 40,000 known species. They have the most unusual courtship and mating behaviours, and are often misunderstood, eliciting fear and loathing due to unwarranted fears about spider bites. Fundamentally, spiders are our friends and our goal with this project is to help share a fascination and love of these eight-legged marvels. We want all people to be familiar with the spiders they most commonly encounter, and when they bump into spiders as they move about the world, they’ll see friends and familiar faces instead of fangs. We want our book to be a non-technical primer of spiders and our goal is to bring awe and wonder, dispel myths, and help create an entire generation of arachnophiles. We hope to reach as broad an audience as possible, and teaming with University of Chicago Press will certainly help with this.

Our project will share stories about some of the most common spiders you will find in North America. Much like Eleanor’s ant books, we will research (using the primary literature) the life history and biology of common spiders in North America, and weave the science into a narrative about the species. We will unpack their biology, and write about spiders using accessible language. We’ll team up with our favourite photographers, and stunning images will accompany the text. Our hopes are that this book will complement the other books out there, and provide readers an accessible and fun-filled glimpse into the fascinating world of spiders.

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Calling all Arachnologists!

We can’t do this project alone and WE WANT YOU! This project will be bigger and better with your help. Although we would love to include ALL the common spiders in our backyards, local forests and fields, this would make the project a little too big… so we need to narrow down to a reasonable number of species. So, we would like to know what species you want to read about.

Do you want a chapter about the glorious Black-and-yellow garden spiders?

What about the Zebra spiders?

Surely you would like to hear more about black widows?

Please provide us some feedback in the comment section, below. Tell us what you want to read about, and what aspects of spider biology must be included in our book. We will take your feedback seriously and try to include your suggestions.

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Needless to say, we are SUPER excited about this project, and those of you that know us are already aware that we super-enthusiastic people to begin with, so this project has taken things to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL OF EXCITEMENT!!! We are so thankful for University of Chicago Press for the opportunity to tackle this project, and are already quick out of the starting gate: we have an upcoming writing retreat planned in March, and have already drafted some chapters. And in the coming months, we will certainly keep you updated on progress. We do hope you are as eager as us to see the finished project hit the bookshelves.

Spiderly, yours,

Chris & Eleanor


Expiscor (16 September 2013)

Bringing you another week of discoveries… Expiscor is here!

  • Don’t believe me? Well here’s a photo from that blog post (reproduced here, with permission)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

  • The path of least resistance. A wonderful post about evolution, from Malcolm Campbell. I love this quote:  “Evolution shows us that, contingent on the forces that shape them, paths of least resistance can lead to stunning innovation
  • Ok, I know you are now ready for a spider photograph, courtesy of Thomas Shahan (reproduced here, with permission)
Jumping spiders are the best.

Jumping spiders are the best.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 2.51.17 PM

  • How Chris McCandless died – a more scientific take on some of the mystery surrounding his death in Alaska.
  • And a spidery video to finish things off. So awesome:

A guide for writing plain language summaries of research papers

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to have plain language summaries for research papers. That post generated terrific discussions, new collaborations and many ideas, and I am now trying to write plain language summaries of my own research as it gets published. The goal of this current post is to provide some guidance about how to write plain language summaries. This work does not come from just from me, but rather from continued discussions with others, notably Mike Kelly and colleagues over at TechTel. The idea of plain language summaries resonates with so many people, from the business and marketing community, journalists, through to science writers, researchers and academics. I am continuing to work with Mike, and will share more as our ideas and projects develop. For now, however, it’s timely to provide some idea about how to write plain language summaries. As usual, your ideas, opinions, and comments are always welcome!

To revisit, what are plain language summaries?

Plain-language summaries are a way to communicate a scientific research papers to a broad audience, in a jargon-free and clear manner. Jargon is defined as technical terms understood only by specialists in a field of study.  In this post, I am assuming that plain language summaries are aimed at a ‘scientifically literate‘ audience, but an audience that is not specific to a discipline. Most scientists who publish in the peer-reviewed literature are familiar with Abstracts – which are a short synthesis of the research, and which typically highlight the research objectives, method and main findings.  Abstract are typically aimed at the audience that will read a specialized journal, but often contain technical terms, and typically jump into a specialized topic quickly and concisely.  A plain language summary is different because it focuses more broadly, is without jargon, and aims to provide a clear picture about ‘why’ the research was done in additional to ‘how’ the work was done, and the main findings.

Plain language summaries are a valuable contribution as they allow research to be accessed by a broader audience, and because the people who do the research write them, the findings are directly from the source and should capture the proper context for the research. Plain language summaries can provide a means to promote research, whether it is through a publisher, on the blog of a scientific society, or for a University’s Media Relations Office. Department Heads and Deans can take these summaries and both understand and promote the high quality science done by their Professors, research scientists, and students. Journalists could read these summaries and not have to wade through technical terms, and have a higher probability of getting the message right. Colleagues can better understand the work that all scientists do, even when disciplines are quite far apart. Other scientists, journalists, the public, government officials, friends and family, can all better understand science if all research papers were paired with a plain-language summary. Plain language summaries make research available, tangible, and are a way to truly disseminate research findings to all who are interested.

How to write a plain language summary:

The first, and perhaps most essential step, is to explain ‘why’ the research was done. The overarching reason and rational for the research must be explicitly stated in general terms. It’s easy to slip into the habitat of justifying research because “Little is known about x, y or z”.  However, this is not adequate for a plain language summary – ‘something’ is surely known on the topic, it’s just a matter of defining that ‘something’ and explaining how the work is expanding beyond, perhaps to a new research direction, or in a different model system.  Mike Kelly, from his perspective (and background) in marketing, was particularly instrumental in helping recognize that the “why” of research is vitally important, and explaining this should never be taken for granted. Scientists need to start a plain language summaries from a broad, ‘big picture’ and more general framework, and work to place their research paper within this context: they must address and answer the ‘why’.  It takes a lot of time to define the ‘why’ and describe it to a broad audience – take the time – it will make the other steps much easier.

The second step is to state the more specific objectives of the research.   This should flow easily from the first step if there is a clear rationale for the work. The research question is a continual narrowing down to a finer study topic, logically flowing from a big picture overview of the discipline into which the research is nestled. A research objective could be phrased as a question, or goal, and may have several sub-questions.

The third step is to explain ‘what’ you did to answer the research objective. Too much detail will be overwhelming and confusing, too little will not allow the reader to envision how things were done. Try doing a flow-chart that depicts the process of the science, and use this as a guide to writing how the work was done. The goal of a plain language summary is not to allow other scientists to follow your methods, but rather to provide readers with a sense of how you did the work, in broad brushstrokes.

The fourth step is to provide an interpretation of results and make them relevant. Unlike a scientific paper, which typically presents results in a linear fashion and independent of a discussion, plain language summaries should integrate the results with a discussion or interpretation. A plain language summary should show readers how the results to fit together and provide insights into the bigger framework or context of the research. It is not necessary to provide all the results, nor is it necessary to provide specific details about each observation of experiment; rather, the results must tell a story and inform the readers of what you found and why the findings are important relative to your research question. The end of your summary should scope out again, and leave the readers will a strong and positive sense about the contribution of your science to the big-picture that you developed at the start.

The last step is to go through the plain-language summary with a keen eye for meaning and jargon.  Assess each sentence and see that the writing is drawing out the meaning from the research, whether it is a description of the study organism or system, or a rationale for quantitative modeling. Without attention to meaning, at all levels, a plain-language summary will be a re-packaged Abstract, which is to be avoided.  Circle or highlight all terms that could be considered jargon  – have a friend, an uncle or a colleague from a different discipline read over the work to confirm that the jargon is gone.  When jargon is identified, rewrite in non-technical terms – it will take more space, but this is better than having terms that cannot be understood by a general audience.

Then: edit, edit, and edit again.

Some hints….

  • If you are visual person, draw the plain language summary before writing it, this will help draw out the meaning and allow you to understand the flow of the summary and how the different sections fit together.
  • It will likely be helpful to first write your plain language summary with headings.  Use headings such as “Why we did this work”, “How we did this work”, “What were the interesting things that we discovered”, etc. Afterwards, re-work the summary to remove the subheadings.
  • Don’t talk down to your audience. A common mistake is the ‘dumbing down’ of the research and this must be avoided. As mentioned, you are assuming the audience for this summary is scientifically literate, and thus you need to speak to them in this way.
  • Aim for about 500 words – more is too much, fewer can be difficult, especially if your research is highly technical.
  • Have your summaries read by other people outside of your discipline, and then have them explain it back to you. If it’s a good summary, the explanation of your own work should be clear, accurate and precise.  If it’s not, find out the trouble-spots and re-work the summary.
  • Finally, don’t rush the process. Plain language summaries are very difficult to write; they take time, and often draw upon skills that have not been part of a researcher’s typical training. Write the summary, leave it for a day or two, and come back to it. It is very important to get it right, as these summaries have the potential to be read by many more people than would normally read a scientific paper within a journal.

In sum, I hope you find that there is value in plain language summaries, and that this guide provides some ideas about how to write one.

You may have more tips or better ideas – please share! (comments welcome…!)