Back to the Future at MIT: My New Job at the Knight Science Journalism Program

After seven years with Xconomy, the world's most intriguing media startup covering the business of innovation, I've left to pursue a new opportunity with the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) program at MIT. In July I struck camp in San Francisco and moved back to the Boston area. I've just finished my second full week of work here on the MIT campus.

All of these changes unfolded at lightning speed in the last three months or so—so fast I've barely had time to digest it all myself. For the curious, here's a longer version of the story: 

For 32 years now, the Knight program has offered a prestigious nine-month fellowship at MIT to mid-career science and technology journalists. It's a unit of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, where I got my PhD in 1994. In grad school, I hung out with several classes of Knight Fellows, and the founding director of the fellowship program, Victor McElheny, is an old friend and mentor. So I have a longstanding connection with, and fondness for, the program. 

This spring, Phil Hilts, a respected former New York Times science writer who had been director of the program since 2008, announced his retirement, effective June 30. I was invited to apply for the post. I found the idea intriguing, though I had never previously considered leaving Xconomy, which has been almost my sole passion since 2007. 

In my job interviews at MIT in late May, I praised the core fellowship program but proposed expanding the scope of the Knight operation. I felt MIT ought to take a leading role in a broad, increasingly crucial discussion about public engagement in technology and science. What do citizens and consumers know about technology and science, and how do they know it? If it's important to raise the level of public involvement in the big scientific and technological challenges of our day -- and I strongly believe that it is -- then what are the most effective ways to do this? What are the obligations of great research universities like MIT when it comes to communicating with taxpayers, policymakers, and young people (our future scientists and engineers) about the research they do? And what new roles can journalists play in all this? 

In my conversations with the selection committee, I sketched out a new initiative—based within the existing KSJ program but working with many other departments, labs, and centers at MIT—aimed at answering these questions through a combination of online reporting and discussion, scholarly research, new-media projects, and live events.

One of the other finalists for the director position was Deborah Blum, a prominent science writer who teaches journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Deborah won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for stories she wrote about primate research at the Sacramento Bee. Her most recent book, The Poisoner's Handbook, was a New York Times bestseller and was made into a PBS documentary; she's past president of the National Association of Science Writers; and she's extremely active, well known, and well liked in the science writing profession. She is, without question, the best person MIT could have found to mentor future Knight Fellows, and in the end she won the position.

But showing typical MIT-style innovation, the selection committee found a way to hire both of us. Deborah isn't available to move to the Boston area until mid-2015, so I was asked to lead KSJ in the 2014-15 academic year as acting director. Simultaneously, in the committee's vision, I'd be laying the groundwork for the launch of the proposed initiative around public engagement in technology and science. Then after Deborah arrives next year, pending some resource-gathering, I'd switch my full-time focus to this new initiative. 

As difficult as it was to contemplate leaving Xconomy, I found MIT's challenge impossible to resist. MIT announced the changes on July 18. And here I am, installed in my new office in MIT's Building E19, getting ready for the arrival of the 2014-15 Knight Fellows in a couple of weeks. I've been communicating extensively with Deborah, who is also excited about the coming changes, and I can already tell we're going to make a great team. I couldn't be more jazzed and optimistic about the all the opportunities ahead.

Bob Buderi, Xconomy's founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief, generously proposed keeping me on the Xconomy masthead in an informal role as contributing editor, an offer I gladly accepted. I've continued to write my weekly Voice of Xperience columns, which come out every Friday. Meanwhile Xconomy continues to build its team (veteran technology and energy writer Martin LaMonica was a fantastic recent addition) and grow its business (Raleigh-Durham just became the 10th bureau in the Xconomy network).

Meanwhile, for folks who like to follow my writings, here are a bunch of links to my most recent work.

-- The most ambitious story I wrote during my final weeks at Xconomy was called The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail. It was a tour of several leading alternatives to e-mail for intra-office communications, including task-based tools like Asana, document-based tools like Box, calendar-based tools like Tempo, social tools like Yammer, and new e-mail management clients like Handle. My conclusion: e-mail isn't going away, because it's the only common platform for communication between organizations. But the new tools will continue to spread inside certain organizations, since each makes workers more productive in key ways.

-- Making e-mail more user-friendly was high on my June 27 list of five annoying tech problems that I wish the next hot startup would solve. The other four: low-fidelity teleconferences, online audio files that are impossible to search, audiovisual snafus at live events, and time zone confusion in calendar software.

-- Pocket is one of the key tools in my information workflow. I use it every day to store articles on the Web that I know I'll want to read later on my smartphone or tablet. My June 13 column explained my method.

-- In a followup to a story last year about promising tech projects on Kickstarter, I profiled a San Francisco hardware company called Sparse. Led by industrial designer Colin Owen, the company manufactures bicycle lights that are not only impossible to steal but look incredibly cool. I got a pair of the lights for my own bike; unfortunately, the whole bike was stolen the day after my article about Sparse appeared. :(

-- I interviewed Indiegogo founder Danae Ringelmann about the emergence of crowdfunding campaigns as a powerful form of market research for young companies.

-- I reported on a fascinating conversation with Corey Ford, managing partner at Matter, the San Francisco-based accelerator for media startups. Most of the teams inside Matter are working on technologies that help media professionals tell stories in new ways, or that will help media companies expand their businesses in new directions. So I have a big soft spot for them in my heart.

-- My May 23 column was full of tips on how to get high-speed Internet service without paying exorbitant fees to your cable company.

-- I took at look at Modern Meadow, a company developing methods for growing cultured leather without killing cows.

-- I'm a longtime user of Carbonite, Backblaze, and other services that offer cloud-based disaster recovery for a specific machine like your laptop or desktop PC. But I'm increasingly intrigued by other services that offer online backup of all of your devices, including your smartphones and tablets, in a single package. My June 20 column was about San Francisco-based Cloud Engines, which offers one such service called Pogoplug.

-- City, county, state, and federal bureaucracies aren't famous for their customer service, and the easier it gets to interact with Web-based companies like Amazon, the larger the gap becomes. San Ramon, CA-based Accela is trying to help government agencies catch up with their private-sector counterparts with a suite of public-facing software tools that it calls the civic cloud.

-- Will anyone ever challenge Intuit's near-monopoly on accounting software for small- and medium-sizeds businesses in the U.S.? Toronto-based Freshbooks is making an attempt, and so is an even fresher entrant called Xero. I profiled the New Zealand-based company, which has located a big chunk of its workforce in San Francisco.

-- I helped get Xconomy's new Raleigh-Durham bureau off to a running start with a look at a live-in startup accelerator in Raleigh called ThinkHouse. That may sound like the setup for a bad reality TV show, but from speaking with participants, it sounds more like living inside a full-time Maker Faire.

-- I reviewed Dave Eggers' dystopian 2013 sci-fi novel, The Circle, which is about a Google/Facebook-style company that blithely tramples on consumer privacy, largely at consumers' own invitation. I felt that the book failed as satire but succeeded as prophecy.

-- My move from San Francisco back to Boston prompted some ruminations about how innovators think differently in the two cities.

-- I strained to remember what life was like before smartphones.

-- Finally, my column yesterday was a bit introspective. I looked back at my high-school graduation in 1985, when I talked my fellow  valedictorians into giving a nine-part speech about nuclear war, and asked whether I have an unnatural obsession with stories of disaster. Have fears of global warming and its consequences merely displaced my teen angst about nuclear destruction? Ultimately, I concluded that my anxiety may be somewhat irrational, but it's still useful. Fear -- as long as it's based on fact -- is an important motivating force for agitators and innovators.

That's all for now. After this summer, I'll probably be publishing fewer original articles for a while, as my focus shifts to the Knight program and the challenges ahead. But I'll continue to use this blog to share updates as the year progresses. So stay tuned.