[Update 10-10: I asked Scott Rosenberg, ScienceOnline’s board chairman, whether he thought the sexual harassment scandal was an important factor in the organization’s decision to shut down. He declined to comment beyond what is in the statement that was released yesterday.–PR]
In an email to supporters early this evening, ScienceOnline, the organizer of annual science writing conferences so popular they often sold out in minutes, said it has been forced to dissolve the organization.
The email blamed “uphill challenges” raising money and attracting volunteers.
ScienceOnline said it has canceled its February, 2015 conference planned for Atlanta. “We have notified those who have already registered for ScienceOnline Together 2015 and will be fully refunding registration fees,” the board said.
ScienceOnline has convened annual conferences since 2007 in North Carolina that brought together an unusual mix of reporters, bloggers, public information officers, and others for discussions held simultaneously in person and online–especially on Twitter–that expanded the notion of what a professional conference in the digital era could be. From the use of Wikis to democratize conference planning to the containers of LEGO bricks on tables at the conference, everything about ScienceOnline conferences was inventive and original.
Scoring tickets to a ScienceOnline conference wasn’t as hard as getting tickets to a Springsteen concert, but it was close. Attendees would sit at their computers repeatedly trying to register until they gave up or became among the lucky few hundred who succeeded. Tickets to the conference were often sold out in a few hours or less, and ScienceOnline’s organizers maintained elaborate waiting lists for those who came close to getting in.
The conference and the organization took a sharp hit in October, 2013, when Bora Zivkovic, one of its founders and the charismatic face of the conference, was implicated in a sexual harassment scandal and published an apology on his blog. (The original page is now missing; this is a link to an Internet archive.)
Zivkovic resigned from the ScienceOnline board and from his job as blog editor at Scientific American. The scandal prompted a special session to discuss sexual harassment at the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers in early November. That was followed by a conference on women in science writing in June at MIT.
It’s difficult to know whether ScienceOnline could have continued without the profound disruption caused by the scandal. But that did force a reorganization of the ScienceOnline board and could have helped to hasten the organization’s demise.
The disappearance of ScienceOnline is a blow to science writing, and especially to young science writers, many of them scientists-turned-writers, who were inspired by the conference and whose careers were jump-started by what they learned there. The next crop of science writers will have to look elsewhere for encouragement.
The full text of ScienceOnline’s announcement has been published on its website and is reprinted here:
ScienceOnline to cease operations, cancels 2015 conference
The board of ScienceOnline has reached the difficult but unavoidable decision to dissolve the organization.
ScienceOnline has a rich history of dedication to its mission: cultivating the ways science is conducted, shared, and communicated online. Since 2007 we have convened popular and groundbreaking conferences that bring together scientists, science writers, bloggers, journalists and other science communicators to move the field forward in the digital era. Participants in these events inspired the growth of a wider community and sparked the development of many important related efforts.
We have faced uphill challenges throughout the past year in assembling the money and the people resources (both staff and volunteer) necessary for the organization to sustain all of its projects. We have put considerable effort into exploring different scenarios for partnering with other groups and/or scaling back our operations, but none of these has provided a path forward. In June we concluded that we did not have the resources to support a paid executive director position, and we eliminated it.
As a result of our state of insolvency, the ScienceOnline board of directors voted on Oct. 6 to proceed with a plan for dissolution, which we will implement over the coming weeks.
One unfortunate but necessary consequence of this decision is that we have to cancel the ScienceOnline Together 2015 conference scheduled for Atlanta in February. We have notified those who have already registered for ScienceOnline Together 2015 and will be fully refunding registration fees.
We’re profoundly grateful for the countless ways that our participants, supporters, sponsors, volunteers, and friends have contributed to ScienceOnline over the years, and we’re proud of what we’ve been able to achieve together. This may be the final chapter for ScienceOnline, but we have great hopes for the future of science communication, and we know that everyone who has made the ScienceOnline community what it was will continue to create that future.
Thanks to all of you.