Does Facebook fit in Academia? Yes!

A common misconception among many academics and professors is that Facebook is bad, that Facebook is a means of procrastination, and that students need to spend less time on Facebook and more time working. I had the misfortune during my time as a graduate student to have the least strategic location for Facebook-usage during work hours. Not having my own office, I had to use a makeshift (but very safe) desk next to my bench in the lab. That meant that during incubation periods, I can quickly check my email, Wikipedia, the molecular weight of mitochondrial Cox1 and of course, Facebook.

Unfortunately, my desk was located in front of the lab’s entrance, with my back to the door; and this meant that anyone passing by can see me check my email, Wikipedia, the molecular weight of every protein, and of course, Facebook.

In a world where ‘there is always something to do’, not being by your bench when your professor or supervisors pass by, can be regarded of somewhat as a no-no.

The purpose of this post is not to complain about the ‘persecution’ some students may get for using Facebook, or talk about how some graduate student got around using Facebook (the control tab function is an amazing thing); but rather to explain briefly that Facebook does have a place in academia. Yes, it may be a waste of time; but Facebook can be a channel for discovering academic content and also a way for students and academics to promote their work online. Also, a big movement in academia is the use of alternative metrics / altmetrics, which look into the number of downloads, article views, as well as how ‘sociable’ an article is by indicating the number of Facebook likes, mentions on Twitter, etc. However, what I will be focusing on in this blog post is how Facebook can be used as a source of information.

I mostly use Facebook to communicate with my friends worldwide, complain about the traffic in my commute to work, and find out what my friends are doing without having to actually talk with them. What is great about Facebook (other than endless kitten pictures) is that it also can be used to be find out about the latest published research. As a non-practicing molecular biologist, I use Facebook as a source of science. I liked several journal and science-news pages and I get to find about the latest research and publications by simply browsing my Facebook news feed.

If you like the QScience.com Facebook page, you will be receiving content related to QScience.com published articles as well news about open access publishing. The same holds true if you are a fan of Science, Nature, Frontiers, or eLife. For example, I found out about Randy Schekman’s criticism of ‘luxury journals’ from eLife’s Facebook post which popped up in my news feed. Interestingly, I also found out about Schekman winning the Nobel prize from Facebook. What followed as soon as the news was announced, was a series of post shares, status updates of excitement from fellow Goettingers, and a debate among some of my German friends whether it was a nobel prize for Germany or the USA. Nonetheless, there was a debate and dissemination of news. Isn’t this what science is about? A big part of successful science is communication (given that you do not give away your recent results and get scooped).

To receive updates from your favorite journal page, simply like the page and click on ‘get notifications’. Many journals are increasingly using Facebook for content marketing and will periodically post about their most exciting research. Of course, many would argue that Twitter is more efficient than Facebook for news and information. To an extent, that is true. But does Twitter deliver the same visual aesthetic as Facebook? Not so often. Besides, many scientific article titles alone can be more than 140 characters. If you are an academic supervisor, the next time you see a student using Facebook instead of ‘working’, they could actually be doing research!

 

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Fresh Insight on Social Media, Adaptation Technology, Renewable Energy, and Agriculture

Social media panel, Wiese (center to right), Keith and Thanki

The first side event of the day, Supporting climate policies through social media—opportunities and limits, drew its opening statements and overall inspiration from the Arab Spring movement as based largely on Twitter and social media tools. The panelists started with some remarks about technological tools and how to use them to affect climate change and then opened the floor to the audience, who were in large part users of social media and thus citizen journalists ready to get in on the discussion. The topic is not only relevant to the region because of its recent history but is also important to consider since Qatar is growing so fast with few traditional media outlets—and residents from too many backgrounds to call any of them traditional—to connect its people. It therefore relies heavily on social media for keeping people informed and any type of marketing.

Josh Wiese, COP18 coordinator of Adopt a Negotiator,  said that the huge transformations in the region relied on social media, which spread messaging and helped people organize. On other issues as well, like human rights, climate change and the anti-poverty movement, social media is useful and there are lots of innovative uses for it, he said.


Kelly Rigg, Executive Director of the GCCA, via Skype at the panel discussion

Social media provides for two critical roles in climate negotiations, said Iaian Keith, Avaaz.org campaigner. The first is to inform—“mainstream media has turned its back on climate change and there is very little coverage except for a few outlets,” he said.

Social media tools like Twitter and Facebook have given ordinary people a voice where there wasn’t one before and this has lead to higher levels of accountability. “Now there are tweets to negotiators and environmental ministers; they know that people are watching and that in and of itself is a powerful thing,” he said.

The second role is negotiating. “When you get 197 ministers in a room for days, it’s a pressure cooker,” he said. “Social media is so powerful in the last hours—it doesn’t take long for a message to create more pressure on certain issues.”

Nathan Thanki of Earth in Brackets offered a different perspective saying that social media is frustrating to him–it has potential because it’s instantaneous, widespread and catchy but when applied to this process at the UNFCCC, it hasn’t been used to the fullest. “Social media combines the misinformation,” he said. “The UNFCCC is cryptic. While a good use of twitter is purely informational, in terms of dealing with the issues this space is trying to deal with, it means a forced simplicity.

“How do you summarize and provide in-depth or meaningful analysis about the most complicated and pressing issue that humans have ever faced? [Social media] creates an opportunity for misinformation … misinterpretation of what is going on,” he continued.

“The internet is like walking into a house party,” Keith said. “You’ve got all these people in groups having conversations and you’re trying to figure out what conversation you’re trying to join—what hits you?”

Humor and topics that hit on a deep, personal level draw people, he said, but the most important factor is ‘moment,’ he said.  “Moment is the most compelling tool—you have to speak to people where they are right now … campaigners often make the mistake of not hitting people where they are right now.”


Iaian Keith, AVAAZ campaigner, sums up effective social media strategies at COP18

The field of journalism is no longer separate from those of activism and relationship management, Wiese said. “We used to fit these things into boxes, we can’t fit them in anymore … it’s very much about what’s happening in real time now.”

The audience participation in this event was high. The question: “What is real and what is negotiation theatre here at COP 18?” prompted an intriguing responses from Thanki and Keith.

“Twitter has absolutely no context,” Thanki said. “We need to think about social media in context … Twitter can be good if it’s seen as a package of social media. Follow up with blogs; follow up with Vimeo or Youtube. It can’t just be about collectivism and the fact that I have no idea how to respond [quickly] to that question highlights the issue.”

“Let’s  go back to the idea of debate,” Keith added. “Real or not, none of the countries is happy with what’s on offer here. They are all using [COP 18] as an opportunity to exert their own national issues. The problem with media is its focus on conflict through debate.

“Debate is two sides battling it out,” he continued. “If you and I are having a political conversation, I’m trying to change your mind not reach a solution. Until they break out of this ecosystem of argument, we are not going to see a solution. Social media has not gotten us there yet , but it can create an environment like a dinner table rather than a debate, with people sitting down, ears wide open, ready to exchange ideas.”

The side event, Supporting institutional capacities for climate change research and training lessons-learned, featured discussion about technological tools being used worldwide to incorporate research findings into adaptation schemes used to deal with specific, localized impacts of climate change.

Netatua Pelesikoti, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, talked about disaster risk reduction and how that is being incorporated into education at the primary and secondary school level. She specifically talked about how programs are targeting young social and physical scientists in the Pacific region and encouraging them to push their research findings into peer review channels. “It’s important to capture the lessons learned on the part of small islands,” she said, explaining that her organization has entered into partnerships with several universities to achieve this. She said that climate change communication strategies  and knowledge management are important components in the effort to make sure that the discoveries make a real impact.

Chris Jack, of the Climate System Analysis Groupe, University of Cape Town, spoke of information coming out of climate models, saying it is useful for large and long time scales, but misses the mark for many. “We are trying to adjust information to smaller scale shorter term,” he said. “Climate is complex, and local feedback and context is not captured by climate projection models. We are trying to work with people at local scale and communities to provide them with information that  is relevant as we learn about their local environments.”

He said that his organization’s work is increasingly focused on understanding historical trends of the weather. A big red flag on the ground these days, he said, is that people are depending on one, single climate change model to inform decision making for variegated environmental conditions. “Maladaptation is a big concern for us,” he said.

His sentiments echoed yesterday’s agricultural discussion in which panelists promoted forms of agriculture more sensitive to local conditions and realities.

Referring to the Climate Information Portal, or CIP, Jack said that initially the focus was on disseminating data, but they soon came to realize that people were downloading without understanding it. “We’ve developed more guidance information to help people use the information better,” he said. “We’re trying to understand how people are using data, how we are presenting it and this is it’s also useful for training … a platform where people can engage with data, and we can work with them to help them use it.

“The most important thing is that it’s allowed us to provide feedback to scientists about what is useful and who is being represented, misrepresented and how it can be improved.”

Tahia Devisscher, of the Stockholm Environment Institute,  spoke of the weADAPT platform, an interactive database in use around the world, which depends on links to knowledge partners.

“We strongly believe in collaboration and collective action to tackle learning and adaptation,” she said. “No single tool or method fits all purposes.”

Devisscher describing the weADAPT platform

weADAPT runs on semantic technology, and links people and organizations that work with climate adaptation around the world. “You can let people know your interests and connect with people who are doing work that is similar to yours,” she said.

People can share findings as case studies and that all of the information is organized around initiatives. “Topics are managed by our knowledge partners—they play the roll of editors of the initiatives, ensuring high quality and credible content,” she said.

The system has recently developed a new interface that allows people to create profiles, like they would on Facebook. Users select information that reflects their circumstances, and the system responds with personalized information so that the user sees what the system can offer them, personally. “The system learns about you, and the semantic technology allows suggestion of what you can read and people you can link with … it’s a new way to attract people to a system,” Devisscher said.

Gifty Ampomah, Environnement et Developpement du Tiers Monde, spoke of community-based risk screening tool and capacity building work she is involved with in several African countries. She described workshop that included local scientists an NGO and a national organization, coming together for a training on vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning. The training relied on “toolkits” involving conceptual mapping and assessment of community perceptions about climate change; resources and institutions. “When you talk to the people who have gained this capacity, they are happy because they find information they are looking for,” she said. “They used CIP to get the information and were happy to know the existence of this tool.”

Anne Hammill, of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, spoke of CRiSTAL, a tool that provides guidance to project planners in designing and adjusting community based activities to support adaptation, which was developed about eight years ago to help users integrate adaptation activities into their projects. “This is an analytical framework provided to users that helps them identify resources critical to livelihood,” she said.

Hammill describing the CRiSTAL interface

Through the characterization of livelihood and resources in specific locations, she said adaptation strategies might be more feasible.

Libasse Ba, of Environmet et Developpement du Tiers-Monde, said  coaching needs to be looked at.  “The problem we are facing is the lack of coaching and the lack of institutional framework to replicate this kind of training at a different level. We are talking in terms of support—we need to develop experience with journalists from the local community, to simplify and transfer knowledge to the local level.”

Insights from the Special report on renewable energy sources and climate change proved engaging reminders of the need for consideration around where renewable energy technology is now in terms of capability and financial impacts.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Vice-Chair kicked off the discussion of the special report by saying that the demand for energy is only going to increase, so if the international community wants to stabilize the temperature, global emissions must peek soon.

“Potential emissions from remaining fossil resources could result in concentration levels far above 600ppm,” he said. “If we want to protect climate according to the consensus of the international community and keep levels low enough to do this, we cannot use the energy sources that are being used today.”

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele discussing the rising use of renewable energy as measured against a low starting point

He said what has become a repeated theme at these side events, that renewable energy is increasingly in use around the world. Yet, he cautioned resting on laurels by qualifying this rate against a small usage to begin with, worldwide.

Looking at the types of energy demand, specifically electricity, heat and primary energy, van Ypersele said that alternatives sources as studied would provide well enough for the energy demands in place today, and findings of the report show that there are no technical blocks to their usage.  Deployment of renewable energy technology leads to stabilization of GHG and lowering of levels over time.

John Christensen, Head of the UN Riso Centre, talked about how to view renewable energy in a broader sustainability context, particularly in terms of combined benefits. In light of growing development, growing consumption and growing GHGs, he said renewable energy can make a contribution. He called on data sets and projections in slides from the IPCC. Graphs showed the well-known fact that with high income comes high energy consumption, yet he noted how some industrialized countries with similar GDPs have different consumption levels.

Strong efforts were made, he said, to link sustainable development assessment with the technical and policy chapters used in high-level negotiations. He said their report was among the last to be submitted because they took time to ensure that the sustainability ideas considered ran in parallel with the concepts of sustainability in the policy chapter.

Christensen outlines policy points that were heavily considered in the design of the report

Renewable energy can accelerate access to energy, Christensen said. It also serves as a buffer against supply disruption and changing market conditions.

“1.3 billion people in the world have no access to electricity,” he said, “2.5 to 2.7 billion people don’t have electricity to cook with. Access for all is one of the targets. Renewables can make a dedicated contribution.”

The initiative defines different levels of access according to social services, from general lighting, to healthcare facility access, to school access. The improvements, he said, offer a lot of benefits, including sustains economic development. To really make progress, he said access must foster a focus on productive uses, i.e., agriculture, commercial and transport-related endeavors. “Different technologies contribute to the different levels of access,” he said.

Blocks to wider use of renewable energy, Christensen said, involve misperceptions around its capability and costs. “It’s quite outdated actually the information that’s out there,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle to tell people that ‘what you are reading is not necessarily true.’ We need to take [renewable energy] seriously and put it in development strategy at secondary or top level, to look broader at it than just at the direct cost—the life-cycle aspects are basically beneficial.”

Hugo Lucas, Director of Policy Advisory Services and Capacity Building, International Renewable Energy Agency IRENA, said, “today there are 5 million people working with renewable energy based on US$ 250billion worth of investment. What is IRENA trying to do is develop a renewable energy learning platoform because it demands qualified human skills. People in Europe are suffering to get people with these skills and we want to address their lack with online academic resources.”

Christensen ended on a poignant note to say “[renewable energy] is not a small niche, this is multibillions of dollars and it’s not the kind of backyard operation it was years ago.”

Agricultural in the Climate Talks and the Food Security Imperative: Which way to Just Solutions?

Varikottil (second left to right), Schroeder and Singh

Dr. Haridas  Varikottil, Scientific Advisor on Agriculture and farmer, began this panel discussion with an example of how local farmers adjusted their strategies according to local-specific recommendations based on sound methods that increased their income substantially. “If you are in favor of poor people, people should support independent agriculture,” he said. “We should support farmers directly and we need policy at the national and international level. In developing nations, 75 percent of people are dependent on agriculture … we should help them.”

Anika Schroeder, Policy Officer Climate Change and Development, asked if climate smart agriculture is a blessing or curse. “What I have learned is that once you give power to the people, and once they start to believe in themselves, they are able to perform better than corporates I have seen,” she said. “We are looking into forms of agriculture that brings people, nature, climate, survival together again.”

The big argument on the table, Schroeder explained, is that between mitigation and adaptation. Policy makers promote and fund mitigation strategies that are one-size-fits all, and the panelists called for funding to adaptation strategies that reflect localized realities. “Farmers keep getting money for mitigation but are not getting funds for adaptation,” Schroeder said. “They call it ‘climate smart agriculture’ but the problem with this term is that everything is included—GMOs, pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers.”

She said that mitigation claims around carbon sequestration are not proven by science. Nitrous oxide reduction claims are only partially qualified by scientific findings that show that it takes ten years and can only occur in humid soil types. Claims around reduced CO2 and NO2 with the lessened use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer are only backed when legume crops are rotated into the land-use strategy.

“It is difficult to measure how much carbon is being sequestered,” Schroeder said. “How can you relate unclear sequestration to carbon fuel emissions?”

According to mitigation strategies, Schroeder said that farmers are forced to adopt inappropriate technology at the expense of finding technology that is area specific and possibly less expensive with the potential to produce better outcomes.

She argued that money spent to set up mitigation-based climate smart agriculture amounts to $US 17million. “This is just to set up the climate smart agricultural system, and none of it reaches the grounds that are farmed.”

Harjeet Singh, International Coordinator: Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Adaptation, ActionAid, said that the impact is greatest on small farms. They are the worst hit. “Rising emissions and temperatures means things will go from bad to worse.”

Policy makers are reluctant to promote adaptation as a strategy, he said. Only when it was forced onto the table and into documentation did they discuss it and only in terms of resilient synergies. Agriculture is a natural priority but the prioritization of it is artificially inflated, he explained.

“The emphasis [instead] should rather be on adaptation.”

The work program being promoted at high levels, he said, is being used like a trojan horse to bring mitigation discussions back to the forefront and overshadow the need for investment in adaptation strategies at the local levels.

“They are telling us to use climate-ready seeds. Stop using indigenous knowledge. Stop using adaptation as a strategy.”

The intention is clear that policy makers are using the UNFCCC to push for agro-business strategies, he said. “We should be demanding a focus on adaptation. We don’t need a work program.

“We need to show how agriculture is ruining the quality of soil and water and how market-based solutions and soil carbon sequestration don’t work. Another thing being pushed through is climate smart agriculture—people don’t want to change the way they are doing things so they market agriculture strategies and hand it over saying ‘here’s a package, do it for us.’”


Harjeet Singh gives his view on why adaptation to climate change should not be privatized