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Purse String Theory Flashback 2: Crossing boundaries

April 25, 2012

Purse String Theory (PST) began in October 2011, one year after the government froze the science budget at £4.6 billion – a real-terms cut of £1.7 billion. We set out to explore the ongoing funding debate among scientists, lobbyists, politicians and academics. In this mini-series of posts, each PST contributor reflects on the journey thus far.

Back when we started Purse String Theory in October, I was uninitiated to the world of UK science funding – a system that I’ve been told is impressively complicated compared to that of other countries. And as a new transplant to the UK, I was still learning the basics of governmental spending and operations. Since then, we contributors have immersed ourselves in the news and debates to do with science funding, taken on areas of specialism within our reporting, and become players in those debates. PST now feels like an ecosystem that grows organically, fed by interactions among us three contributors and the readership we’ve built up.

A few things stand out as interesting lessons learned.

Our community

When we started, we didn’t know who would be talking about science funding or reading our blog. We might have vaguely said “UK scientists” and “people working in science policy”. As it turns out, the most vibrant segment of our audience has probably been academics studying UK science policy – but there is a long tail of people from other areas, including charities, research science, science journals, journalists, and policy people overseas.

Science funding therefore brought in a wide range of disciplines, but it was interesting to realise it’s still a niche field. Just as not everyone cares to keep up with politics, not every scientist cares to keep up with science funding. PST probably didn’t convert any people to care about funding who didn’t already, but what we did do was add our voices to discussions and move the conversation forward with original reporting.

Are we journalists or bloggers?

Mirroring a very contemporary blurring of boundaries between journalism and blogs, PST combined both. I won an interview with shadow science minister Chi Onwurah and found some answers on the upcoming Catapult Centres. These exclusives were hugely popular among our audience. Equally popular, however, were a few more bloggy posts – for instance, one article that just summed up an online debate that had taken place on different blogs. Such posts can run the risk of creating an online echo-chamber but, in our case, had the benefit of getting PST recognised as a player in the discussion.

Both timely and evergreen

Finally, we experimented with different styles of post. Some were timely pieces designed to get out in front of what we knew would be an important event to our community, such as the budget announcement in March; anticipating a conversation about science’s presence or absence there, we liveblogged the proceedings and then followed up with an analysis immediately after. Since ours was one of the first sites to define some of Osborne’s science remarks, we got a big boost in search engine traffic before the bigger news outlets caught up.

Other articles were more evergreen, such as the data visualisation of UK research spending compared to other G7 countries. These served a different purpose – rather than being the first with a timely story, we were trying to provide something of lasting value to the community – and these posts were popular in their own right for larger, more in-depth stories.

My PST

Learning from the community has been the best part of this for me – funding, it turns out, is one of those topics best dissected by many eyes and argued from many perspectives. I’m looking forward to continuing to follow, write, and discuss PST topics in various forums in the future!

In our final PST Flashback post, Greg Jones argues that progress in science requires taking some risks.

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