Will I not be ‘Important’?

This is the troubled question Jeremy Baumberg asks rhetorically in his recent book The Secret Life of Science when he discusses the vexed question of what happens if he decides not to attend some conference, along with

‘Will I no longer be seen as a significant actor in the discipline?’ and

‘Will I not be party to conversations that build a mutual support club?’

Jeremy – a colleague of mine in Cambridge – has a pretty jaundiced view of conferences, but I am troubled by this list of questions which are all about where he (metaphorically, as I’m sure he is asking these questions as the universal scientist rather than as himself specifically) stands in some mythical pecking order rather than whether better science will be done. I feel this is a dangerous viewpoint. Throughout this chapter Jeremy is highlighting the pitfalls of the conference, but his words throughout do seem to convey a sense of ego being the motivation for conferences rather than the joy of science and the wish to move it forward.

I share his somewhat jaded view of conferences – but then that’s easy to say having ‘enjoyed’ (if that’s the right word) a lifetime of them. I feel this chapter (and I haven’t finished the whole book yet, so I can’t comment on what comes next) would be enough to deter any but the keenest PhD student or postdoc from wishing to attend a conference of any sort. Yet these researchers are exactly the ones who should go, while they are still expanding their horizons, when they haven’t already heard the eminent keynote speakers give the same talk fifteen times already and when some friendly challenges around their poster or oral presentation may be most helpful to them. The early career researcher has much to learn from interacting with others like them, sharing experiences (good and bad), or getting informal low-down on techniques when their green fingers aren’t as experimentally developed as researchers in a different lab.

I remember the heady days of my first poster session, when older scientists whose papers I had carefully studied stopped by my poster to see what developments I was laying claim to. I got to put faces to names, and began to realise that being famous did not mean (when I attended their own talks) necessarily being charismatic or crisp in presentation style. It is good to realise one’s hero(in)es may not be perfect. I remember the first oral presentation I gave – when someone (a stranger, although they may have been very eminent) came up to me afterwards and said they’d never heard anyone talk so fast or try to compress so much into 20 minutes; useful criticism, although I suspect my pace of talking is often still too fast.

Jeremy seems to dislike conferences because there are too many of them. That is doubtless true, and some of them are predatory and some are pointless. But, for established scientists I really don’t believe it’s necessary to trek around the world just because some organising committee has invited you. I decided, once my children came along, that travel was one of those things that just had to be jettisoned in order to make my life work, and I stuck to that for many years until it just became a habit. If my reputation was diminished because of this I felt it was a price worth paying.

As I wrote some years ago in an early blogpost

‘Some travel is vital, much may be as much about ego-stroking and having interesting experiences in exotic parts of the world as actually being productive for your career. Don’t assume more is necessarily better.’

I still believe that, and that perhaps is where Jeremy and I differ. Staying in the lab, talking to your students and writing grant proposals has much to recommend it compared with some conferences I have attended. The mega-conferences mean you often can’t catch the one person you really wanted to see. Parallel sessions which get out of sync mean you may also miss the one talk you absolutely wanted to hear because the session you were trapped in overran. And, at one particularly frustrating conference I recall in Boston, people were mainly just sitting in the corridors dealing with their email rather than actually attending anything – which makes the travel even more pointless. It’s healthy to remember there is a real cost – in carbon, in bucks – as well as an opportunity cost when spending too much time on the road or in the air.

Of course, as a later stage scientist we all have a responsibility to organise conferences sensibly. Not to convene conferences just for the sake of it, or to fix them annually merely to get to interesting locations. We should not see them (to quote the analogy Jeremy uses), or our appearance at them, as

‘fantastical displays made to woo potential sexual mates (of either gender).’

There must be a clear reason for them.

I have some fond memories of conferences here at Churchill College, long before I had any association with the college otherwise. There was the triennial international conference in my field where I could note my progress from nervous novice, through to being invited onto ‘top table’ at the conference dinner to joining the organising committee. As it was only triennial it was a big deal and all the major groups would come along. Discussion was, as they say, robust, but there was a palpable feeling of the field moving forward. And when it seemed like the field had matured the conference ceased, or at least it moved to a new home in the Netherlands with a new emphasis (and I never attended it again).

Then there was a different conference that a triumvirate of us dreamed up to bring researchers in starch from many perspectives together, from physics and computational model to biotechnology to plant science. We mixed the sessions up so that people would not just attend talks in their own fields. It succeeded beyond our dreams and we held a second conference four years later also here at Churchill. At that second conference one of the keynote speakers offered me a hundred mutants of maize starch. At that point I realised as a physicist I had done what I wanted in starch. Recalling Lord Rutherford’s alleged quote

‘Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.’

I felt I was in danger of entering stamp collecting territory and moved on.

Meetings come in many sizes. I prefer the smaller meetings where there is time to share ideas, talk to the newcomers in the field and generally profit from the people around. In the UK national meetings in a particular field are often small enough that the discussion is fruitful and students and postdocs are encouraged to talk.  We need such meetings. We need to ensure students find their voice, learn what works and how to engage with questions of all sorts, from the simple and the silly, to the truly challenging and worrying.  We should definitely encourage students to attend such meetings, even if the surroundings are not as glamorous as Hawaii or Acapulco but a mere ‘60’s hall of residence.

But, above all, we should not use conferences or meetings simply as display of our glorious colours with no thought of the science itself. Jeremy is right to be jaded, but I think he maybe is overfocussed on motivations that are good neither for the individual nor the discipline.


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2 Responses to Will I not be ‘Important’?

  1. When one starts on a scientific career, the people we meet and with whom we socialise at conferences are our peers. We forge networks with them, collaborate, and seek strength from our unity. Of course we hobnob with our seniors, but we don’t overdo it if we have any sense.

    As we progress through our careers our research develops. Small differences in interests to those of our peers amplify as the topology of our career paths diverges. Life choices, children, and the like further interfere with mutual attendance on the conference circuit.

    One is not forgotten by our peer group. They’re facing the same challenges.

    The last but one time I accrued air miles to get to a conference, it was on proteoglycans. I knew nobody there. I barely know what a proteoglycan is, but my student was giving his first conference talk and I was there to support him, feeling rather lost (me not him). As my research interests diversify, I need to go to new places in search of new opportunities. I am a latecomer to biophysics in soft matter, but at the European Biophysics Congress in 2011 I came back inspired by the keynote from by Akihiro Kusumi which kept a PhD student busy for 3.5 years.

    So conferences will always be useful but their utility changes as we do.

  2. Steve Eichhorn says:

    I wish less emphasis was based on travel. Some years ago, an outcome of a promotion case for someone with young children was that they would have to increase their “keynote talks” if they to be promoted to a Professor. This in my view was appalling, and we have to remember that targets set like this do not allow for good reasons why someone might be travelling – as you have pointed out. A year ago I made a decision to cut my travel significantly. I don’t notice that it has made a dramatic difference to my academic career, although I now feel more established. I have to admit that there is a lot of dead time at conferences. If I come back with 2-3 good ideas (or contacts) I consider it to be a success. If not, then I reconsider going again.

    As an addendum, and not explicitly covered here is the socializing at conferences and the emphasis on alcohol. I also gave up alcohol 3 years ago, partly because I recognised not just a problem in myself, but also the discipline. Academia does have a problem here, and the tendency towards improper behaviour at conferences is not helped by excessive drinking (in my view). I don’t mean this to be judgemental, as I’m pointing the finger at myself here too! As a reformed drinker I can view it now from a different angle. Not staying up at the bar to “socialise” and network at conferences means I can catch up on work away from the talks. I definitely don’t think that has harmed my career one bit! Emphasis on alcohol is also not very inclusive, and takes no regard for those who cannot drink on the grounds of religion. I think there needs to be some serious thought given to this.

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