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SciOnline 2010 and all of our findings

February 3rd, 2010

Ever thought of putting extra lab space on Craigslist? Would you trust advice from FriendFeed over a lab manual? Do you know what putting your data in “The Cloud” could do for your lab’s workflow?

These were the types of questions asked and answered at Science Online 2010, a conference in RTP designed specifically to give science researchers and bloggers a common forum. Hosted at the Sigma Xi Center between January 14-17, the conference focused on the ways new Internet technology is changing how science is done and how information is distributed.

A wide variety of topics were covered using the unconference format, where the presentations were not lectures so much as large discussion groups. The program catered to all levels techie. The novice could learn what Twitter is and how to tweet, the casual follower was presented with a variety of demos to further spark their interest, and the advanced IT gurus could learn from other members in the audience, as the conference allowed for a unique overlap of experts from academia, industry, and the blogosphere.

New Internet technology is allowing mass participation and collaboration on a scale not seen before. Blogs continue to grow in number and variety as more and more scientists and journalists use them as alternative outlets for their material. While the conference is evidence enough that the science blogosphere is here to stay, two other major areas of new Internet technology – social networking and cloud computing – are not yet as commonplace among scientists, yet offer even more potential to change how scientific research is done and shared.
Social Networking

The general consensus of the conference was that social networking has so far failed to live up to its potential for collaboration among scientists. A large variety of social networking sites have been launched specifically aimed at scientists, but thus far none has caught on. The only one that drew a partial recommendation from the crowd was Epernicus. LinkedIn, a more general networking site, got some recommendations from the crowd to use as an online address book, but no social networking website offers a community specifically tailored to scientists.

The one exception is FriendFeed. For those of you who are unaware, FriendFeed is the main competitor to Twitter. The conference showed evidence of an ongoing argument between users of each respective site reminiscent of PC vs. Mac. Scientists at the conference in general preferred FriendFeed, praising the chance for more in-depth discussion that is possible in the public discussion groups. Specifically, “The Life Scientists” group was highly recommended.

In The Cloud

When your work is “in the cloud,” everything is done and exists on the Internet. This allows for easier access across different workstations and simplifies collaboration on shared documents, among many, many things. Not surprisingly, cloud computing was pioneered and remains most popular among computer scientists. However, recent years have seen the concept catch-on everywhere it can. Google is the most well-known leader in the new technology and Google Wave specifically is the biggest attempt to bring the cloud style of working to everyone. Cloud computing is broken down into three general areas:

o SAAS: Software as a Service (e.g. Basecamp)
o IAAS: Infrastructure as a Service (e.g. Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud)
o PAAS: Platform as a Service (e.g. PayPal)

For scientists these new technologies open up many new possibilities for analysis and collaboration. The casual armchair scientist, by using the cloud, can now access datasets and computing power that can match all but the largest research institutions. Even for members of such research institutions, the cloud provides an attractive plan B for outsourcing work that might be more difficult to accomplish within an existing administrative structure.

Cloud computing offers a whole new way of doing things, but don’t kiss your hard drive goodbye just yet. The universal recommendations from the conference were to be sure to back-up everything that is essential and to keep private materials out of the cloud.

For all you life scientists interested in what all this new technology has in store for you, be sure to check out BioGPS, a website (http://biogps.gnf.org/) created by the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) that is devoted to compiling all existing genetic resources. If you like the looks of it, be sure to see how they’ll be “going social” in 2010 (http://biogps.blogspot.com/ – announced February 1).

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