Is there a Point in Travel?

As my last post makes clear, I have been busy travelling recently. My trip encompassed visits to both New York and Boston, cities which in years past I have visited quite frequently. Boston is delightfully non-American: its streets are not on a grid but resemble a British city much more than any other US city I have ever visited. It has had a hard winter this year and remnants of the mounds of snow were still to be seen between the road and the sidewalk, but they were clearly but a pale imitation of what they had looked like earlier in the month.

In the past one of the main reasons for my presence in Boston has been the annual MRS meeting held in the Hynes Conference Centre and local hotels. When I first went – and 15 years or ago or so I was even a session organiser for a symposium at one of these meetings on the Materials Science of Food – I found these meetings incredibly stimulating. With multiple parallel sessions it was always something of a challenge to nip between one meeting room and another to catch the talks one really wanted. There was a rich diet of excellent speakers, be they the most senior or those just setting out, as well as well-attended poster sessions.

However the last MRS meeting I attended, five or more years ago, I found deeply depressing. The buzz had gone. The multiple sessions were still running, but even when a speaker had an audience too often half of them were lurking at the back of the room reading their emails. Wifi was available throughout the conference space and consequently everywhere people were using it to stay online. Coffee breaks merely meant people moved out into the corridors and sat around still glued to their laptops. Conversation was severely limited, little discussion occurred and it was hard to interact with those one really wanted to catch. I have not been back since that disheartening experience.

I have always felt there were drawbacks to the big US style meeting. Whichever city they were held in, however wonderful the conference facilities, the quality of the air-conditioning (most important when I attended a conference in Atlanta in August) and the luxuriousness of spacious hotel rooms, the very extensiveness of them frustrates interaction. UK conferences held in dreary campus halls of residence mean that everyone turns up in the bar in the evening and perforce mingles. The food may be unexciting but if you are all there together you can far more easily find the person you’re really keen to toss ideas around with. This is probably even more important for junior researchers who can casually bump into their hero in the lunch queue. If everyone is staying in different hotels and you’re all heading off in different directions to find food, it requires much more bumptiousness and confidence to approach a professor to ask for time to discuss your work than if you can casually sit next to them at breakfast. So, whereas I still attend UK conferences the only US conferences I have been to in recent years have been Gordon conferences where New England prep schools’ functionality is more comparable to the UK hall of residence (although often the food is better).

However, is travelling an overrated academic pastime anyhow? Conferences can be – although I note above, not always – immensely stimulating as well as useful places to network, be inspired and be brought up to date with new developments and discoveries. However, too often the invited speakers are the same people delivering the same talks before rapidly disappearing to their next important engagement. Such people too rarely provide inspiration, insight or even opportunities for one-to-one interaction. That too often the slate of invited speakers is anything but diverse has been noted by many about conferences in many different fields. If added to this the opportunities to interact with the majority of attendees are limited by logistics and over-excessive availability of wifi then one has to wonder what benefit accrues beyond a tick on your CV from travelling thousands of miles at significant expense.

For students and for postdocs the very experience of presenting one’s work to a wider public can (and certainly should) be stimulating, even given those limitations, but once one progresses beyond the first few meetings, is the time away from one’s desk/lab bench/research group more than compensated by what one gets back? How many conferences a year do you really need on your CV to be convincing that you are making your mark when it comes to appointment and/or recruitment? I for one cut back on my travel when I had children and have never regretted the limit I imposed back then, one I have essentially never removed (even though my children have long since left home). I feel my productivity is greater for physically remaining close to home and department and restricting the days of inefficiency due to jet lag. I think as a sector we should be very careful of assuming someone who has accrued many airmiles in order to be seen in all continents in a given year, is more worthy of respect (or promotion) than someone whose travel itinerary is much more limited. In particular, if we slavishly expect everyone to attend some large number of conferences a year we are undoubtedly unwittingly disadvantaging those who do not choose to do so, perhaps due to caring responsibilities or health issues.

I wrote a long time ago about why I think travelling is overrated and nothing I have seen since makes me change my mind. It doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my most recent trip which I concluded by giving the Geiringer Lecture at Harvard. I spent a fascinating day at the University meeting old friends and new acquaintances and catching up with what they had been doing. I also learned more about Hilda Geiringer, in whose honour the lecture was named, a remarkable applied mathematician who, both as a Jew and a woman had a frustrated academic life around the time of the Second World War. Her 93 year old daughter was present at the lecture. Overall I suspect I got all the more out of the trip because it was so long since I had last visited the USA.

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4 Responses to Is there a Point in Travel?

  1. Marco Pautasso says:

    Dear Athene

    many thanks for this thoughtful post on an issue
    which is relevant not just for researchers.

    An additional factor to be considered is
    the greenhouse gas emissions one can avoid
    by not attending far away conferences and meetings,
    as also emphasized in this working paper,
    apologies if already seen

    “Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century”

    best wishes


  2. Ilovechocolateagar says:

    One thing I would add to the comment about ever-present wifi and that is that it greatly facilitated social media interaction at conferences. Am in the middle of a conference now and have set up several meetings over coffee by tweeting the speakers. Much less intimidating!
    I agree on the dubious value of too much jet setting and mega conferences, especially for those with young children or caring responsibilities. I have been able to do my school run before conference sessions this week (virtue of living in English Midlands where everything is close!)

  3. Brian says:

    I would agree with you when it comes to the massive conferences. However, on small, narrowly focused conferences I have made many good connections. There appears to be time at the small conferences to talk and discuss, and (after getting over the activation barrier), inviting yourself to join a group for dinner.

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