People talk about “networking” all the time, and it is definitely a key aspect of science communication and outreach. But networking can be somewhat hard to define, and it is a difficult skill to teach. I’d like to take a moment to talk about networking and, by way of example, explain how I came to write this blog. Or at least how I think I came to write this blog.
Networking is important for people in all aspects of science communication, but that importance manifests itself differently depending on what you do. For reporters, the contacts developed through networking can offer leads on story ideas and access to valuable sources. For public information officers (like me), the people we meet while networking help us keep track of research taking place in our own institutions and help us figure out which reporters would be interested in stories we’re pitching. Networking can also give researchers a heads-up about job opportunities, funding opportunities, promising grad students or post-docs and potential collaborators. In short, schmoozing can be pretty useful.
I think networking consists of two parts. The first part is putting yourself in a position to meet people you might want to collaborate with or who can create opportunities for you. The second part is identifying those opportunities and taking advantage of them.
Example 1: Bringing ScienceOnline to NC State
In early 2011 I heard that the annual ScienceOnline conference was outgrowing the space available at the Sigma Xi campus, which had been hosting the well-known “unconference” for years. Because I worked at North Carolina State University, which is pretty big, I thought it would be cool if we could bring all of these science communication enthusiasts to our campus.
I reached out to the conference organizers, who were receptive to the idea. Equally important, my bosses at NC State also supported the idea. We soon reached an arrangement that would bring ScienceOnline to NC State for its 2012 conference. (We’re hosting it again in 2013.) This is an example of getting news through your network, seeing an opportunity and taking advantage of it.
Example 2: Networking Through Social Media
With the rise of social media, we are increasingly “meeting” like-minded people online, but it’s up to you to identify opportunities connected with those people. A good example of this starts with my meeting a fellow flack named David Wescott at a 2011 planning meeting for ScienceOnline.
Shortly after meeting Dave, I watched a video in which Miss USA contestants opined on whether evolution should be taught in schools. When I kvetched about it on Twitter, Wescott told me to stop complaining and do something about it. Others quickly chimed in, including Jamie Vernon, Andrea Kuszewski and Kevin Zelnio.
We used our respective networks and networking skills to get researchers and science communicators to collaborate with us in creating a video on the importance of teaching evolution. We then used our networks to disseminate it. Ultimately, the video got attention in outlets ranging from The Guardian to Jezebel.
Thus, my rant on Twitter led to a collaboration (via Twitter and email), which led to people sitting in front of video cameras to shoot material that we were able to use to reach a wide audience. (Embedded videos often don’t count toward YouTube’s view numbers, so we reached significantly more people than the ~44,000 views you see on their site.)
Example 3: How I Came to Write This Blog
At ScienceOnline2012, I arranged for some attendees to take a tour of the forensic anthropology lab at NC State. Afterward, I was chatting with some of the people who went on the tour (networking!), including Laura Wheeler of Nature, who told me to let her know if I ever had any ideas for a post on Soapbox Science, Nature’s guest blog.
That was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I ended up writing four pieces for Soapbox Science on everything from social media to why science writers don’t have to be scientists. These posts were fairly well-received, and a few months later I wrote a guest post for Scientific American blogs about why scientists may want to engage in outreach.
Not long after that post went up, SciLogs contacted me about launching a science communication blog — which you are reading now.
Summing up, James Burke style: I heard that ScienceOnline was outgrowing its host, which brought them to NC State, where I organized a tour, which led to a conversation, which led to guest posts for Nature and SciAm, which brought me to the attention of SciLogs.
All because of networking. So pay attention when you’re shooting the breeze with someone over beers or chatting with folks online. You never know when an opportunity will present itself.
P.S.: Since I mentioned scientist outreach and ScienceOnline, it’s worth noting that I’ll be co-moderating two sessions on scientist outreach at ScienceOnline in 2013, along with Miriam Goldstein, Karen James and Meghan Groome. Hope to see you there! If not, you should be able to follow along online. It should be interesting.