An interesting experiment: the Guardian science-blog – academia meets the press?

As a further contribution to discussions about academic public policy blogging, here is a brief account of the experiment with The Guardian and science policy.

By James Wilsdon

In 2012, the Guardian’s science section embarked on an editorial experiment with a group of around 15 academic bloggers – inviting them to edit and write regularly for a family of science blogs on the Guardian website  https://www.theguardian.com/science/series/science-blog-network.

All of the invited bloggers were experts in their fields, ad most were drawn from the scientific community – from mathematics, particle physics and astronomy to neuroscience and psychology.

But the line-up also incorporated:

  • the H-Word blog (see https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word) which ran from 2012-2017 and was co-edited by two historians of science (Becky Higgitt and Vanessa Heggie)
  • and the Political Science blog (on the politics of science, technology and innovation – see https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science) which has been running since 2013. The group blog was initiated by the formidable Alice Bell (now of the climate NGO 10:10) who brought together a group of science policy bloggers including the current co-editors, Kieron Flanagan (MIOIR, Manchester), Jack Stilgoe (STS, UCL) and James Wilsdon (Politics, Sheffield).

The model was innovative, in that the Guardian gave this group of bloggers the the freedom to write or commission contributions from others whatever subjects they choose – without editorial interference – with the aim of broadening and deepening its coverage of scientific research and debate.

Support and advice was provided for the group through training sessions once a year at the Guardian offices in London (on e.g. libel and legal considerations, search engine optimisation, headline writing etc), and a dedicated editor was always on hand and able to offer informal guidance.

And the Guardian editorial team typically sends an email once a fortnight to the whole blogging network, updating us on upcoming stories or developments in editorial strategy.

From 2012-2015, the bloggers could post pieces up as and when they chose (via their own access to the Guardian’s editorial grid and web platform Composer, and the ability to launch pieces direct – at which point they would go live on the Guardian’s site and be tweeted out to ~1million followers of the various Guardian twitter feeds).

From 2016 onwards, this access to Composer has continued, but the Guardian has introduced one level of light editorial checks by its own staff – primarily focused not on editing the content, but on ensuring the headlines and tags on the pieces are optimised for web traffic and search engines.

In my own field – science and research policy – the Political Science blog has allowed us to publish and give a platform to a large and diverse range of academic and practitioner contributions across science policy, science and technology studies, political science, innovation studies and related fields.

We’ve at various points encouraged more ECR (early career researchers) contributions via different learned societies and conferences. And we’ve tried to provide more international science and innovation policy coverage (of US, Europe, Japan, Australia, China) than would normally make it into the Guardian’s editorial mix.

It can be time consuming – particularly commissioning and editing other people’s contributions – and the model we have adopted in the Political Science blog of using a lot of external contributors means that the three editors now don’t write their own pieces as often as they did.

But as a contribution to the outreach, dissemination and impact of our fields of study, I feel that our blog (and the wider blog network) has been a successful experiment.

James Wilsdon
Professor of Research Policy, Director of Research & Innovation, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Sheffield

PS  the post was edited by the authors to clarify the origins of the Political Science blog and acknowledge the key role of Alice Bell in bringing it into being

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