Matt just wrote this, in an email exchange.  It struck a chord in me, and I thought it deserved a wider audience:

I hate to admit it, but those two papers (i.e., Taylor et al. 2009 and 2011) that had particularly protracted gestations and lots of review time are among the ones I am most proud of. There might be a lesson there — but if so, I’d rather not learn it.


Cervical vertebra V (from an unknown position in the anterior part of the neck) of the STILL undescribed Tendaguru brachiosaurid NHM R5937, "The Archbishop", in right lateral view. The posterior portion is missing in action.

Since the publication of Brontomerus, which let’s remember was only a couple of weeks ago, Matt’s had the rather bad manners to post about another new paper of his — a review of prosauropod pneumaticity which might be uncharitably summarised as “Were prosauropods pneumatic?  The fossils say yes”.  As though that weren’t enough, he had the audacity to follow up with another post about an article he’s just had published in the Australian science magazine Cosmos.

Well, I’m striking back: it’s been an unusually productive period for SV-POW!sketeers, because I was a co-author on another paper that actually came out a few days before Brontomerus, but which we didn’t have time to talk about back then.  The new paper is:

  • Hone, David W. E., Michael P. Taylor, David Wynick, Paolo Viscardi and Neil Gostling. 2011. Running a question-and-answer website for science education: first hand experiences. Evolution: Education and Outreach, published online ahead of print. doi: 10.1007/s12052-011-0318-5 [PDF available]

And it it’s all about the Ask A Biologist web-site.

I’ve been involved in Ask A Biologist since its inception in 2006, yet I’ve not really written about it here, which is very remiss of me.  I think it’s a fantastic resource, and the publication of a formal paper about our experiences running it seems like a good opportunity to fix that.

In concept, Ask a Biologist is very simple: people ask biology questions, and a biologist answers them.  We have a pool of to 20 or 30 biologists with different specialisms (though admittedly with a bit of a bias towards vertebrate palaeontology), and any of them might pick up and answer any question — or respond to any previously posted answer, which sometimes leads to interesting discussions.  An example is discussed in the paper:

The somewhat frivolous question “What’s the best way to stop Velociraptor attacks?” attracted six answers. The first noted the general principle that it’s best not to go near large, fierce animals in the first place; the second went on to suggest climbing a spiral staircase, because dromaeosaurids such as Velociraptor had stiff tails that would have made them unable to negotiate tight bends; subsequent answers pointed out that the orientation of dromaeosaur wrists would have made it difficult for them to open doors as depicted in the Jurassic Park movies, and that, “in life” Velociraptor was much smaller than depicted on screen. It’s not unusual for a pop-cultural question like this to lead into answers that turn on details of anatomy: this we feel, can engage a child’s attention far more readily than conventional teaching methods and takes them farther than they might expect from what may have been a tongue-in-cheek question.

[Raptor comic by Randall Munroe of xkcd]

Ask A Biologist was the brainchild of Dave Hone, who was also lead author on the new paper describing the site, outlining its history, and describing the advantages and disadvantages of the way it’s set up.  Dave is to be congratulated for getting this up and running, pushing it through three incarnations from its humble beginnings as a special-purpose blog into its present rather slick version, and drumming up enough interest to have attracted more than half a million visitors, with answers to well over 3,500 questions.  As the paper points out, this has been done almost entirely on the basis of voluntary labour, for a very modest total cost of £3,750.  In terms of cost-effectiveness, this is spectacularly successful science evangelism.

But the main reason Ask A Biologist is exciting to me is because it’s a manifestation of the Shiny Digital Future.  As recently as a decade ago, there was a clear separation between working scientists and the rest of the world.  Science happened over in a dark corner, and occasionally a scientist would deign to send a package of information out to the rest of the world.  That’s changing, fast, thanks largely to the ubiquity of the Internet.  Blogs such as Tetrapod Zoology, The Open Source Paleontologist, and indeed SV-POW! have played their small parts in this process — not only providing a means for researchers to describe what they’re doing, but enabling anyone who’s interested to engage with the scientists.  But sites like Ask A Biologist are arguably even more significant, because they provide such an easy route for non-specialists to be in contact with experts.  By design, most of the questions are asked by schoolchildren: they may be phrased with any level of sophistication, and we make an effort to couch answers accordingly.  It’s a privilege to be involved in something that has such a catholic audience.

So how can you get involved?

By all means, read the paper, which describes Ask A Biologist in more detail than I can here.  But there are two more important things you can do.

  1. Help to let the world know about Ask a Biologist.  If you’re involved in a school (do you have children who attend one?) make sure that the teachers know about it.  If you give talks at local natural history societies, leave the URL on a slide.  (In a couple of weeks, I’ll be giving a talk about Brontomerus to the school that my eldest son attends: I’ll make sure to mention Ask A Biologist.)
  2. Those of you who are practicing scientists, please consider volunteering to be one of the experts who asks questions.  If you’re interested, contact Dave Hone, who can set you up.

It’s a great project to be involved in!