No, not in the Darwinian sense but more in a socio-cultural one. This week I am at an annual conference that I have been attending on and off (but more on) for nearly 30 years, which is a rather sobering thought in itself. And I want to reflect on how the world has changed, as reflected in this microcosm, during this period. For those of you who feel attending a conference is a daunting thing to do, let me assure you things have improved! Breaking my normal self-imposed constraints of ‘anonymity’, I may as well state that the conference is the High Polymer Research Group Annual Conference ; anyone who knows me will know that’s where I am, so there is little point in suppressing the fact. Anyhow it is not my intention to throw brickbats at this present day conference, only that of days past. Once upon a time the atmosphere and culture of this meeting was wildly different, I suspect anachronistic even for its time. This is not, I’m sure, simply because it feels that way as I have progressed from being a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed junior to being part of the long term furniture of the meeting. Lots of people, new attendees though not necessarily young ones, have made encouraging remarks this year about the inclusivity and good atmosphere here this week.
This residential conference is a venerable beast, celebrating its 50th birthday with due pomp and circumstance last year. It is located in a rather beautiful location, with walks – and golf – on the doorstep, which contributes to its particular ambience. (So much so, that when perforce it had to relocate from the edge of Dartmoor a few years back, much care was expended on finding somewhere with similar characteristics; it’s now held at the edge of the Peak District.) Like Gordon conferences, the afternoons are free for exertion – mental or physical – and making contacts. I can no longer recall the first year I came but it was probably around 1985. One comes by invitation only, so I felt honoured back then to have made it onto the guest list. However, it was a pretty dispiriting experience, although some of my feelings about it are coloured in hindsight by realising just how odd and quirky it was. Let me list some of the things that made it an impenetrable wilderness as far as I was concerned:
• There were only 2 women present – Julia Higgins and myself – out of 100+ attendees. At the time that wouldn’t have felt quite so unusual an occurrence and I was inured to being the only woman in a room quite frequently at physics meetings. Nevertheless I’m sure Julia was glad to see a doubling of the number of women present having, in previous years, been completely on her own; it was still pretty lonely.
• The average age appeared to be around 60 (no hard evidence to that effect, since dates of birth weren’t supplied, but the general impression was that the majority were if not actually retired, close to it. The old guard who had set the meeting up in 1960 were going strong).
• Nametags were not in evidence, indeed I think explicitly outlawed. Clearly it was a sufficiently inward-looking group it was not felt necessary. Anyone who was anyone knew who all the other anyones were. Not helpful for an interloper like me.
• The attendees were almost entirely chemists. I realise not everyone feels that makes for a dispiriting atmosphere, but for me it just reinforced being ‘odd’ and ‘different’, even beyond my gender. It also contributed to the fact that I didn’t know the other attendees, or even have much appreciation of who the famous anyones were, because they weren’t famous in my field.
• Heavy drinking in the bar was de rigeur, particularly after the conference dinner (again not everyone may feel that that was a disadvantage).
Over the years there certainly has been an evolution, I believe for the better, reflecting a more inclusive and welcoming culture. This is in part reflecting wider cultural changes that mitigate against an attitude of self-serving arrogance and exclusivity – the ‘old boys’ club’ that I originally encountered where literally the attendees were old and boys, or at least male – to something where early career researchers are positively welcomed as the life blood of the conference and science more generally. The attendees are now much more diverse in age and gender, and particular attention is paid each year as the list of speakers is drawn up; gender, geographical location and academia/industry balance are all explicitly considered and 2-3 slots are reserved for less-established scientists. Furthermore, with the growth in science that is ‘interdisciplinary’ no longer is this conference the domain of a single subject with the odd hanger-on allowed in from cognate disciplines. Quite explicitly the themes cover much broader topics and speakers are expected to be intelligible to those whose research interests may be far away. The world of scientific conferences has moved on so that the idea of the well-established cliquishness that was so manifest originally is inconceivable. Name tags were introduced some years ago, so there is no excuse for not knowing who one is talking to (beyond the ubiquitous problem of the writing being so small that those whose eyesight is less than 20:20 may find themselves peering inappropriately down someone’s cleavage).
Nevertheless, conference attendance can continue to be daunting. I know senior professors who still express reluctance, perturbed by the fear of striking up conversation with strangers or preferring to sneak off to their rooms rather than face up to making small talk in the bar at the end of the day. Indeed, if it is any consolation it might be worth appreciating that attending as an (outside) invited speaker at general conferences can be particularly hard work: everyone knows who you are but you may have no idea who they are. But meetings, if appropriately welcoming, can also be a wonderful place to have stimulating conversations, build up contacts that may stand you in good stead over the years as collaborations build or you want professional advice about dealing with tricky situations, research councils etc. Out of the particular conference I am discussing, some years ago a new group gestated and came into life known as ‘Recent Appointees in Polymer Science’ to act as a forum and formalised network for young faculty. This in turn has spawned a similar organisation for Recent Appointees in Materials Science, possibly in other disciplines too. Establishing contacts can only happen if both the old folk are welcoming and the youngsters don’t hover on the sidelines but plunge into the Q+A sessions and join in conversations over dinner. I hope this particular conference will have a long and happy future promoting discussion, networking opportunities and to act as a fertile ground for new collaborations.