Monday, 12 July 2010

UK science blogger interview: Daniel MacArthur

After completing his PhD in 2008 in Australia, Daniel moved to the UK to take up a position at the Sanger Institute, the largest genomics research institute in the country. His day job revolves around the analysis of DNA sequence data from projects like the 1000 Genomes Project, and figuring out ways of using these torrents of data to help inform studies of human disease. His blog Genetic Future focuses on the personal genomics industry: companies offering to sell you information about your own genome, for purposes ranging from learning about your ancestors to predicting your risk of serious diseases.

First question: Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

This is something that has really evolved over time as I started to get to know my readers. Initially I had a very vague idea of potential readers - basically anyone interested in genetics, I suppose - but I found it very hard to write about the things I was interested in without implicitly requiring some kind of background knowledge from the reader. I also started to accumulate a great group of regular commenters with expertise in the field, a combination of self-educated genetic hobbyists and people with more formal training, and that's the level that I ended up pitching most of my posts.

I'm never sure if I've found the right balance, but it's certainly made it easier for me to write about the scientific and commercial aspects of genomics to not have to build in a huge amount of introductory material for every post.

Is there anything about your composition style, or choice of subject matter which you feel has changed over time? (as you have got to know your readers, or for other reasons).

Yes, absolutely. When I started the blog I initially focused on genetics more broadly, with an emphasis on the scientific issues. As time has gone on I've focused more and more on the commercial side of things, spending a lot of time discussing companies involved in direct-to-consumer genetic testing and DNA sequencing. To some extent this shift has been reader-driven, but mostly it's just a reflection of how my own interests have changed over the last couple of years.

Changing track a bit. You've written about some of the difficulties of scientists (live) blogging conferences. Do you feel there is a role for blogging in opening up business as well as science? Equally, do you feel especially constrained ever as a science blogger who focuses on commercial issues?

There's definitely a role for scientifically-literate bloggers in opening up the commercial world to public scrutiny. One scathing post from a blogger laying out the deficiencies of a company's genetic test can end up dominating Google search hits for that company's name, which then means potential consumers doing even the most superficial web research before buying can quickly get access to informed criticism. That's incredibly important in a field as complex as genetic testing, where most consumers aren't really in a position to make a fully informed decision - having independent, expert reviews out there on the internet can make it a lot easier for people to make the right choice.

That said, with power comes consequences. It's easy to forget that what you say as a blogger can have a major impact on the companies you write about: one bad review of a new sequencing technology could sometimes be enough to dissuade a key investor from buying in, for example. When that sort of money is at stake the consequences of mis-reporting are pretty serious, so I'm now always quite careful to make sure what I say about a company is carefully-phrased and well-justified. I don't always get that right when I'm writing in a hurry or if I'm particularly outraged by a dodgy product, but I try.

Can you imagine more corporate-based science blogging, in similar ways science charities like Cancer Research UK or the Wellcome Trust blog? (esp. the former, as their news blog works to act against google results of "bad" health news messages they would like to combat?)

There are already some quality corporate science blogs out there - a particularly good example in my field is The Spittoon, run by direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. However, it's hard for corporate blogs to stay on-message without either being boring or looking like PR shills for their company. I'd definitely like to see more companies out there blogging, but if they do so they're going to have to learn to give their bloggers a reasonably long leash and be prepared to deal openly with controversy in the comments section. It's tough to get the balance right, but companies that do it well can get a lot of respect (and business) as a result; unfortunately, companies that get it wrong (as Pepsico did this week) can find themselves in a world of pain!

Finally, can you tell us your favourite blog? (it doesn't have to be a science blog)

I'm a nerd, so all of my favourite blogs are science blogs! It's very tough to pick a single winner, so I'll name three instead: for general science I'd have to say Ed Yong's Not Exactly Rocket Science, for my field of research I think John Hawks' excellent palaeoanthropology blog, and for personal genomics I have only good things to say about the Genomics Law Report.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.

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