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