When climate scientist Gavin Schmidt launched the blog RealClimate.org in December 2004, he knew there wasn't any other blog for an academic audience discussing global climate research. But he never expected it to become seminal reading for reporters, researchers and anyone else interested in the topic.

It also won praise from the media. Scientific American magazine honored RealClimate.org with a Science and Technology Web Award, lauding it as "a focused, objective blog written by scientists for a brainy community that likes its climate commentary served hot." RealClimate.org was also named one of the top five science blogs by Nature magazine in 2006.

"The researchers on this blog are much more interested in placing discussions or new papers in the context of what scientists are really talking about," says Schmidt, a researcher at Columbia's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "Having managed the blog for a while now, I think it has a very clear niche and is kind of unique in its focus."

As blogging becomes a mainstay communication method for corporations, media and special interests, a coterie of academic bloggers—including a good number of Columbia faculty—are also using the medium to exchange ideas and spur debate.

"Public education is part of our job as educators in an Ivy League institution."

According to Nielsen BuzzMetrics, which tracks blogging trends, there now are nearly 79 million registered blogs, and about 10,000 new ones start each day.

Among the most high-profile bloggers at Columbia: three worldrenowned economists—Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and Jagdish Bhagwati—who share their insights on the International Herald Tribune's Managing Globalization blog. Josh Ruxin, director of the Millennium Village Project in Rwanda and assistant clinical professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, regularly fills in for New York Times columnist and blogger Nicholas Kristof. Sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh frequently writes for the Times' Freakonomics blog.

Unlike many bloggers, who may rely on buzz and spin over facts and figures, Columbia faculty bloggers are more concerned about easily communicating their ideas inside and outside the University.

"Public education is part of our job as educators in an Ivy League institution," says Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs. Cohen, too, is a blogger: Since February, he has written for the New York Observer on environmental topics. Cohen believes blogs are a natural way for Columbia professors to push out ideas and encourage dialogue. "The best thing about having a blog is that they create a demand for content on a regular basis, and force you to write and get your ideas down."

New media expert Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs and professor of professional practice at the Graduate School of Journalism, says the blogging trend in the university community is certain to grow. "Within academic settings, blogs are a good way to connect to students and colleagues," says Sreenivasan, who writes for his school's Dean of Students blog and New Media program blog. "I think blogs are just one tool of a set of things academic departments should be thinking about as part of an outreach strategy."

Brigitte Nacos, an adjunct associate professor of political science and founder of ReflectivePundit.com, a current affairs blog, finds that blogging provides a way to share her work in a more conversational way. "I like having the opportunity to comment on what I think are important issues in the areas of my interest in a timely fashion," says Nacos. "While I love researching and writing scholarly [pieces], posting on my blog is more like explaining my thoughts during conversations with people." While finding time to update her blog can be challenging, Nacos also finds that blogging "is really relaxing."

But not everyone can—or should—jump on the blogwagon. Keeping blogs fresh is a big challenge. "You need to keep blogging—that's the downfall," says Sreenivasan. "You have to keep it updated, and you have to have something to say. People who want to blog should ask themselves if they're committed to blogging and if they can update it at least twice a week."

The very nature of blogging also invites debate with readers, and the possibility of criticism can give pause to some potential bloggers. Schmidt, however, believes this may be the medium's strength. Blogs can serve as an open platform for ideas backed by academic rigor, allowing them representation in discussions that will go on in any event.

"In topics such as climate change—or anything where there are perceptions that academic studies might impinge on somebody's ethical, political, religious or economic outlook—there is already a huge discussion and criticism of our studies out there," says Schmidt. "The choice is not between controversy and a quiet life, it is between allowing the critics to be the only public voice or not."

 

Examples from Columbia's Blogosphere

RealClimate.org
Blog on the latest studies and developments in climate science by working researchers.

ReflectivePundit.com
Commentary on select current affairs including those affecting media, politics and terrorism.

Steve Cohen (www.observer.com/stevecohen)
A discussion of green policies in New York City, the United States and beyond.

Public Offering (www.gsb.columbia.edu)
A mix of topics by faculty and staff at Columbia's Graduate School of Business

Exhausted Earth (Reuters.com environment section)
General analysis of climate science by Stuart Gaffin at the Center for Climate Systems Research

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