Science Online London 2009! – The Prequel

I have just returned from the “prequel” of the Science Online ’09 Conference here in London, which was jointly organised by Nature Network, Mendeley and the Royal Institution. The word “prequel” really is a bit of a euphemism for having an amazing time here: the day was ably organised and very charmingly led by Matt Brown, Matt is both a scientist and a “Londonista” extraordinaire, who took us on a tour of scientific London.

We started the day off by a visit to the offices of Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and got a glimpse of how Nature was produced: how do the editors make decisions over acceptance and rejections, what happens to a manuscript once it has been accepted and what does the postproduction look like? The offices themselves are in a converted brewery building and located right next to some canals which were used to move stuff round London in the old days.

It was interesting to see just how confident the editors were in their ability to predict high impact papers before they even send them out for review (approximately 70% of all manuscripts submitted to Nature get rejected outright before even undergoing peer review). I suppose that it is true that they see an awful lot of cutting edge science, attend a lot of conferences and travel a lot – nevertheless the amount of confidence did surprise me somewhat.

John Hunter by John Jackson (obtained from Wikipedia under a Wikimedia Licence)

John Hunter by John jackson (obtained from Wikipedia under a Wikimedia Licence)

Once were were done at Nature, our next stop was the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. The collection of the museum was developed by John Hunter – one of the most prolific surgeons and anatomists of his time. Of Scottish origin, Hunter came to London at the age of 20 and started work in the anatomy school of his older brother William. He soon eclipsed his brother in the skillful preparation of anatomical samples as well as in anatomical knowledge. As is often the case, this led to sibling rivalry and the two eventually fell out. This left John unemployed for a while and, after stints in the army (he used his army time productively to study gun shot wounds and their treatment) and as a dentist, he managed to establish himself in London as an anatomist and surgeon of considerable standing. Eventually he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III (the mad one). During his time in London he established a public anatomy school and a museum which was free and open to the public. The work of his many students and apprentices furnished the collection of his museum, which was ultimately bought by the state. Two-thirds of the very large collection of anatomical samples of both human and animal origin were destroyed during the German bombing of London during the second world war. The surviving collection is still extensive and gives an impression of the size and diversity of the original.

Afer so much anatomy a break was in order and, in good British fashion, we ate our lunch in a London Park in the rain – all part of the experience. From there, on to the Wellcome Collection, which, at the moment hosts a special exhibition of anatomical wax models and curiosities – the “Exquisite Bodies” exhibition. Most of the models were produced between thr 17th and 20th century. Certainly the Victorians loved them….anatomy shows mixed the eductional with entertainment and displays of “freaks” juxtaposed with detailed anatomical models and models illustrating the symptoms of common ailments of the time were commonplace. it was a stark contrast from the cool scientific objectiveness of Hunter’s collection.

The last order of the day involved the sampling of many of London’s finest beers together with conversations about blogging, barcamps, novel forms of scientific communication etc. What was striking was the diversity of backgrounds (we had practising scientists, doctors, publishers, journalism students, astronomers etc..) and their enthusiasm for new forms of science communication. It makes me entirely optimistic that the future of science is bright and that many of the crusty old modes of scientific communication, assessment and measures of productivity will simply get blown away and obliterated. Sure, a lot of them are finishing their PhDs or their undergraduate studies right now, some are post-docs. It’ll take us a while to change things, but change they will – it is inevitable. Some of the people in our group won’t wait and have already started causing change now: we had the first organiser of a science barcamp in our midst and her idea is now spreading and carried by other people internationally. I take my hat off to them and wish that, as a student, I had listened less to all my advisors preaching about impact factors, publications and papers, papers, papers. There is something new and fresh afoot and young scientists without formal academic position are now able to organise themselves and form powerful networks like never before. It’s exhilarating. I am probably gushing somewhat now and maybe am not too coherent in my writing….I’ll put it down to the lateness of the hour and to the sheer excitement I feel for the first time in a long while. It’s an excitement, which can so easily get lost or crushed by current science managers and professors.

So a wonderful day. Again, thanks to Matt and all the others who had a hand in arranging it and to the great people attending.

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One Response to Science Online London 2009! – The Prequel

  1. Matt Brown says:

    An excellent summary of an enjoyable day. Thanks for coming along, Nico, and good to see you again after all these years.

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