Friday, 21 June 2013

Discussion meeting vs conference: in praise of slower science

Pompeii mosaic
Plato conversing with his students
As time goes by, I am increasingly unable to enjoy big conferences. I'm not sure how much it's a change in me or a change in conferences, but my attention span shrivels after the first few talks. I don't think I'm alone. Look around any conference hall and everywhere you'll see people checking their email or texting. I usually end up thinking I'd be better off staying at home and just reading stuff.

All this made me start to wonder, what is the point of conferences?  Interaction should be the key thing that a conference can deliver. I have in the past worked in small departments, grotting away on my own without a single colleague who is interested in what I'm doing. In that situation, a conference can reinvigorate your interest in the field, by providing contact with like-minded people who share your particular obsession. And for early-career academics, it can be fascinating to see the big names in action. For me, some of the most memorable and informative experiences at conferences came in the discussion period. If X suggested an alternative interpretation of Y's data, how did Y respond: with good arguments or with evasive arrogance? And how about the time that Z noted important links between the findings of X and Y that nobody had previously been aware of, and the germ of an idea for a new experiment was born?

I think my growing disaffection with conferences is partly fuelled by a decline in the amount and standard of discussion at such events. There's always a lot to squeeze in, speakers will often over-run their allocated time, and in large meetings, meaningful discussion is hampered by the acoustic limitations of large auditoriums. And there's a psychological element too: many people dislike public discussion, and are reluctant to ask questions for fear of seeming rude or self-promotional (see comments on this blogpost for examples). Important debate between those doing cutting-edge work may take place at the conference, but it's more likely to involve a small group over dinner than those in the academic sessions.

Last week, the Royal Society provided the chance for me, together with Karalyn Patterson and Kate Nation, to try a couple of different formats that aimed to restore the role of discussion in academic meetings. Our goal was to bring together researchers from two fields that were related but seldom made contact: acquired and developmental language disorders. Methods and theories in these areas have evolved quite separately, even though the phenomena they deal with overlap substantially.

The Royal Society asks for meeting proposals twice a year, and we were amazed when they not only approved our proposal, but suggested we should have both a Discussion Meeting at the Royal Society in London, and a smaller Satellite meeting at their conference centre at Chicheley Hall in the Buckinghamshire countryside.

We wanted to stimulate discussion, but were aware that if we just had a series of talks by speakers from the two areas, they would probably continue as parallel, non-overlapping streams. So we gave them explicit instructions to interact. For the Discussion meeting, we paired up speakers who worked on similar topics with adults or children, and encouraged them to share their paper with their "buddy" before the meeting. They were asked to devote the last 5-10 minutes of their talk to considering the implications of their buddy's work for their own area. We clearly invited the right people, because the speakers rose to this challenge magnificently. They also were remarkable in all keeping to their allotted 30 minutes, allowing adequate time for discussion. And the discussion really did work: people seemed genuinely fired up to talk about the implications of the work, and the links between speakers, rather than scoring points off each other.

After two days in London, a smaller group of us, feeling rather like a school party, were wafted off to Chicheley in a special Royal Society bus. Here we were going to be even more experimental in our format. We wanted to focus more on early-career scientists, and thanks to generous funding from the Experimental Psychology Society, we were able to include a group of postgrads and postdocs. The programme for the meeting was completely open-ended. Apart from a scheduled poster session, giving the younger people a chance to present their work, we planned two full days of nothing but discussion. Session 1 was the only one with a clear agenda: it was devoted to deciding what we wanted to talk about.

We were pretty nervous about this: it could have been a disaster. What if everyone ran out of things to say and got bored? What if one or two loud-mouths dominated the discussion? Or maybe most people would retire to their rooms and look at email. In fact, the feedback we've had concurs with our own impressions that it worked brilliantly. There were a few things that helped make it a success.
  • The setting, provided by the Royal Society, was perfect. Chicheley Hall is a beautiful stately home in the middle of nowhere. There were no distractions, and no chance of popping out to do a bit of shopping. The meeting spaces were far more conducive to discussion than a traditional lecture theatre.
  • The topic, looking for shared points of interest in two different research fields, encouraged a collaborative spirit, rather than competition.
  • The people were the right mix. We'd thought quite carefully about who to invite; we'd gone for senior people whose natural talkativeness was powered by enthusiasm rather than self-importance. People had complementary areas of expertise, and everyone, however senior, came away feeling they'd learned something.
  • Early-career scientists were selected from those applying, on the basis that their supervisor indicated they had the skills to participate fully in the experience. Nine of them were selected as rapporteurs, and were required to take notes in a break-out session, and then condense 90 minutes of discussion into a 15-minute summary for the whole group.  All nine were quite simply magnificent in this role, and surpassed our expectations. The idea of rapporteurs was, by the way, stimulated by experience at Dahlem conferences, which pioneered discussion-based meetings, and subsequent Strüngmann forums, which continue the tradition.
  • Kate Nation noted that at the London meeting, the discussion had been lively and enjoyable, but largely excluded younger scientists. She suggested that for our discussions at Chicheley, nobody over the age of 40 should be allowed to talk for the first 10 minutes. The Nation Rule proved highly effective - occasionally broken, but greatly appreciated by several of the early career scientists, who told us that they would not have spoken out so much without this encouragement.
I was intrigued to hear from Uta Frith that there is a Slow Science movement, and I felt the whole experience fitted with their ethos: encouraging people to think about science rather than frenetically rushing on to the next thing. Commentary on this has focused mainly on the day-to-day activities of scientists and publication practices (Lutz, 2012). I haven't seen anything specifically about conferences from the Slow Science movement (and since they seem uninterested in social media, it's hard to find out much about them!), but I hope that we'll see more meetings like this, where we all have time to pause, ponder and discuss ideas.  

Lutz, J. (2012). Slow science Nature Chemistry, 4 (8), 588-589 DOI: 10.1038/nchem.1415


  1. I think the very fact that so many people sit and read their email stifles discussion and the right atmosphere. The last time I went to a big USA meeting, one I had enjoyed greatly in the past, everyone - during the sessions and the coffee breaks - was simply wedded to their chosen electronic device. It killed the atmosphere. Most speakers spoke to an audience that wasn't really engaged. I haven't been back.

  2. Replies
    1. I like the Nation Rule. For now.

    2. What the Nation Rule promotes is similar in spirit to brainstorming strategies that were first applied in some organizations in Japan. In such brainstorming sessions, employees on the lower-end of the organizational hierarchy get to voice their opinions before the big guns. This allows junior level staff to participate in the discussions and freely express their ideas without the kind of self-censure that usually results from hearing your bosses' views.

  3. I love the idea of slow science and slow academia. The big conferences that I attend can have so many parallel sessions that the attendance at each session can be quite small - and as you say, there's not a lot of opportunity for discussions. Your discussion meeting sounds like a great alternative.

    Amani Bell

  4. A very interesting post and many thanks for that link to the slow science movement!
    Last week, I attended a conference at Oxford that had only 2-3 talks per afternoon, aimed at a select audience of about 40 [The topic was the philosophy of cosmology, an initiative that tries to facilitate a meeting of minds between cosmologists (theoretical physicists who study the universe) and philosophers (where did the big bang come from etc?)].

    Although most of the speakers were heavy hitters indeed, there was plenty of time for questions at the end of each talk, and the answers quickly became to-and-fro discussions between equals. Even smaller 'workshops' in the mornings follwed a similar pattern.
    The whole thing was hugely beneficial, a million miles away from the large conferences I'm used to, where only one talk in 5 is really of interest, with 2 minutes for questions afterwards
    Regards, Cormac

  5. Those who like small participant-driven and participation-rich conferences like these may be interested in innovative formats for running them. I have been facilitating such events for over twenty years; people love them. My 2009 book on the topic—Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love—provides an introduction.

  6. I also felt that the engagement and discussion at this meeting was fantastic. I think the 30-minute talk slots were a big help because they're long enough for the speaker to discuss the issues in a meaningful way but short enough for listeners to digest multiple talks.

    The typical 15-20 minute conference talks are too short to explain the issues in detail (so speakers end up running over time) and the 2-5 minute Q&A period doesn't allow real discussion. On the other hand, it would be nearly impossible to integrate ideas or find connections across multiple 1-hour keynote/colloquium talks.

    And I thought having a single Q&A session for each pair of speakers created even more opportunity for unexpected connections and ideas to emerge. Thanks for organizing a great meeting!

  7. In my own field of paleontology, I've found the small (<100 participants) specialty meetings to be far more useful than the big (>1000 participants). Folks seem more willing to discuss things after talks, and the hallway/bar discussions are almost always many steps above. A really nice thing is that the "big names" are much more accessible at these sorts of venues, too. Although the keynotes might be by invitation, the rest of the talks are usually by open submission. This has a nice side effect of allowing those outside the core of the field or off the usual "top 10 speaker list" to participate.

  8. You raise several interesting points. Certainly the management/business,marketing conferences which I attend appear to have fallen into a rather staid format where any real discussion of ideas happens over coffee or in hallways and comprises 2 or 3 people. Encouraging younger researchers to speak up and lessening the self promotion of the the more established academics might well bring new exciting ideas to the fore.

  9. I totally agree with everyone's comments on the annoyances of big meetings and the joys of small ones. What I seem to read between the lines of some comments is that we should organize small meetings more often and ditch the big meetings. I think we should not forget an important reason for why the big meetings exist in the first place: there are an awful lot of researchers out there. They all have something interesting to say (well, most of them anyway), they all want to be heard, they all want to meet their peers, etc. It is impossible to accommodate them with an awful lot of small meetings - we cannot all live in a palace. So, while small and focused meetings with a carefully selected group of participants are great, it would also be worthwhile thinking about how we can fix the mass events.

  10. It was a very special meeting and a huge honour to be involved. A few other things really stood out: 1. we all seemed to feel it was a luxury to spend four entire days thinking about the topics we feel most passionate about - a shame since this is what most of us came in to academic to do! 2. At least 50% of the speakers were women - a rarity indeed and totally inspiring! 3. the talk behind the scenes was just as informative as the main stage, but for different reasons - what initiatives different departments have started to support junior staff/women; how it feels to be a man trying to reduce your hours to look after the children (or be the lone man at the school gates); what the minimum publication expectations should be (and should there be a maximum). It was terrific - I learned so much and came away in love with my job again!

  11. Couldn't agree more. The other issue we have in speech path is trying to meet the needs of researchers and clinicians. The well-attended sessions address clinical issues---like my session with Gerry Wallach at ASHA last year on APD. In contrast, research presentations which provide a good forum for discussion are poorly attended. There were only 5 people at my doctoral student's presentation at ASHA last fall---me, 3 of her fellow doc students from our program, and one of the other presenters. The other presenter in the session left after her talk and her support group left with her.

    Our age and access to new information is also a factor. My favorite conferences were the small Phonology conference that started at Purdue University in the early 1980's and SRCLD when it was in the Wisconsin Center right by the Union. Those were the days!

  12. I agree - it was a great honour to be invited to both meetings. A superb feat of organisation. It's rare to come away from a four-day conference feeling so invigorated, motivated and inspired. Thank you Dorothy, Kate, Karalyn and the Royal Society. Here's to more slow science!

  13. It seems someone needs to speak up in defense of big conferences. If the comments here reflected the broader academic view then large meetings would surely not exist, yet they appear to be flourishing. In fact I like both formats, though for quite different reasons. Small meetings are valuable for the many reasons cited in the blog and comments, but big meetings can also be useful. At such meetings (lets say >10,000 delegates) I tend to ignore most of the talks, but the scale of the meeting means that among the thousands of posters one is sure to find gems aplenty, and good opportunities too for meeting and talking to the younger scientists.

    The other most useful feature of a large meeting for me, is the opportunity to network. Such meetings tend to gather investigators from around the world, and so create opportunities for discussion and socialising with far flung collaborators who may be less likely to travel half way round the world for a small meeting. And while this wont apply to everyone, interactions with industry and pharma partners are a necessary part of my work, and they generally only attend large meetings.


    1. Thanks for putting an alternative viewpoint, Stephen. To me, a meeting of more than 500 people would be large and I cannot imagine going to a conference with 10K participants. I just know I would hate it and find it overwhelming, but I accept that for more extraverted types, it may be enjoyable.
      As you say, these conferences are flourishing so are clearly doing something right. But, I wonder how many people come away disappointed. And, quite apart from the question of their scientific value, I do worry about the carbon footprint too.

  14. There's a whole movement of unconferences that has been sweeping the world. I've attended THATCamp in London a few years ago and enjoyed it greatly and I've organized a Collabor8 4 Change event last year.

    You can achieve similar results to what you're describing with much less exclusivity and pre-organization. Simply help people to self-organize around topics and issues they're interested in. This way you can have the small group feeling even at large conferences.

    The issue is more about the incentives and structuring of "academic work" than the conference organization. The value of collaboration and communication is depressed over the value of publication and grant funding. If most if not all grants require conference presentations and publications no wonder we're swamped with massive corporate get togethers of little value to anyone.

  15. I just went to the Slow Science manifesto and they lost me with their very first sentence: "We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time."

    That's the worst possible response to the issues you describe. Slow science should be about not rushing to publish not about not blogging. Science would be far better served if most of the sharing researchers did was in the open via blogs and tweets and only after pro-longed interaction, the synthesis of the results would be published. Think Darwin's furious correspondence with the world but not behind closed doors. In my own field of linguistics, I always think of Language Log and Mark Liberman's "Breakfast Experiments".

    The speed of science is driven by the skewed labour politics behind science not by tweets. This manifesto confuses too many issues to be credible and reads as little more than cantankerous bellyaching of people yearning for a past that never was.

    1. Obviously, as a prolific blogger and tweeter, I can only agree! It does seem a shame that the Slow Science group has conflated social media with other issues around pressures to publish. But in other respects, I think they make good points. And it is clear that many other people who do use social media share my views.
      Very interested in the idea of the Unconference. I looked on the web and there's loads of stuff - can you point me (and my readers) to a site that explains the idea?
      I'm about to go to a big (by my standards) conference, but I can't see how we could possibly incorporate an unconference within it, as the programme is already full.

  16. Actually, as a science blogger myself, I think the slow science people might be onto something, even with regards to blogging.
    Far too many science blogs have hastily written posts that do not do justice to the material. For those bloggers like this one who do take time (days) over posts, the comments tend to be quickfire and not at all thought out. It can be a very dispiriting way of discussing science, I wish there was a way of getting commentators to think before they comment

  17. Much as I find the publishing of academic papers has become science's master rather than its servant, so I find that scientific societies have crafted large meetings primarily to serve their own ends and those of their members, rather than to benefit scientific discourse first and foremost. Both developments make sense, however. They are only responding to the way we have constructed the academic system. In the case of large conferences, organizers have an interest to accept as many submissions as they can (whilst seeming to be selective!) because many potential attendees can't get travel money unless they have a submission accepted! Talk about perverse incentives.

    So, sadly, I'm with Deevy on this one. (Happens I saw the post while wandering forlornly at the HBM last week.) As I mentioned, collectively we get the processes we ask for, either explicitly or implicitly. Which is why I started putting work onto arXiv last year. (I don't want others to have to wait for the review and publication process to work itself through before they can see what might be important to them. I'll take my licks in public.) Henceforth I'll submit papers for peer review only selectively, and when I don't think there is a compelling time imperative. For conferences, I'm already generally avoiding those that either (a) have more than about 2000 attendees, (b) have a majority of parallel oral sessions, (c) restrict talks to 12 minutes or less, or (d) try to cram so many talks into a session that there is no time for questions, let alone discussion. I spent most of four days last week finding three (admittedly useful) posters. Not exactly the most efficient use of my time. If it hadn't been for the post-conference jaunt I would have come home very dispirited indeed.

    I've also been drastically restricting what's sent to conferences, and I decided while at HBM last week that I would decline any invitations to speak for less than 20 minutes. I doubt very much whether anyone cares at what might look to be protest moves, but these small steps are helping my productivity in spades. Then again, I will miss some of those post-conference jaunts. Swings n' roundabouts.

  18. Having organised sessions at big (12.000 participants) conferences as well as small meetings, it seems to me that the size of the meeting is not necessarily the only determining issue; it is much more important how a meeting is organised.

    Small meetings can also be incredibly boring, while sessions at big meetings can have an engaging programme, if the session chairs resist the temptation of going for the "top 10 most important people" (whom everybody knows anyway) and instead deliberately chose a diverse range of topics.

    Regarding small meetings, there is of course much more scope for creative activities. We just had a meeting that was specifically designed for creating new ideas and collaborations: Some impressions from the second EarthTemp Network meeting.

    (By the way&off-topic, if you know applications of surface temperature data in medicine, we are interested as we want to get more users outside climatology involved in these debates).

  19. I will also defend big meetings. Big meetings that are run well have many interesting things going on. I can meet knew people and learn knew things. It can be overwhelming yes, but if you find your niche it is like a conference within a conference.

    The small meetings I go to are very hit or miss. The attendees can be cliquey. I am not well known or senior. Sometimes folks like me, postdocs and grad students are left out of the things that can make small conferences good.

    What conferences are like can depend a lot on who you are.

  20. Big meetings with lots of poster sessions are very different to ones with lots of talks. It can be really interesting to talk to lots of researchers as they take you through their posters and also to see what questions other people ask. When they're well organised, you get clusters of similar projects so even somewhere as massive as SfN (~40,000 people I think last time I went), you bump into 'the usual crowd' in a section of posters. SfN and CNS have both been great for that in my experience, despite being 'big' conferences.

  21. While I agree with the general thrust about having smaller conferences, the "slow science" stuff is a non-starter for early-career researchers working in the modern, and frankly tough environment. I mean, who are we kidding here? I say this with the greatest respect but I can see how slow science works for successful, older scientists who had more resource in times gone by but this is simply not the case for ECRs right now. We can barely give a moment to being "slow" in our lives outside academia let alone within it, given the pressures on capturing grant funding, publishing in high impact journals and so on. And we have all seen the reports on how certain institutions are turning over staff to meet external demands related to the REF and grant capturing. Pardon the trite phrase, but perhaps we should all get a bit "real" rather than "slow."

  22. This discussion makes me even more sorry to have had to miss this meeting!

    Conferences can provide (among other things) concentrated doses of the latest results and discussions of how to think about issues. The benefits of each of these vary with the experience (and perhaps narrowness of prior training) of the researcher. Speaking only for myself, I hope for at least 80% discussion of issues at conferences these days, but it is certainly the case that at earlier stages of my career, I needed to soak up more results before I could fully appreciate how all the issues might fit together.