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Science Conferences Are Stuck in the Dark Ages

by | Jan 3, 2020 | New, News

You always pass failure on the way to success.

— Mickey Rooney

Science Conferences Are Stuck in the Dark Ages

Exhausting, expensive, and exclusive, these conferences needs to be modernized. The future of science depends on it.

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Albert Einstein speaking in 1933 in a conference format still dominant in 2020.Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Every month, scientists gather at conferences around the world. The topics range from climate change to big data to microorganisms and their role in plant, animal, and human health, but they are equally dull, dated, and drill-like. Invariably, there’s a series of talks and poster presentations, a few plenary sessions by prominent scientists, several workshops, a marketplace of company booths, and many, many networking events.

To be in the room where it happened is crucial for academic success. But for decades, whether in Basel or Bolivia, the room has been the same: four walls, a podium, and a projector. PowerPoints today mimic the effect of a centuries-old continuous-slide lantern. Even when time is occasionally left for questions at the end of lectures, it’s still a distinctly one-way flow of information. Scientific posters are similarly archaic. The experience of sitting silently while a colleague describes slides or an overcrowded posterboard is familiar to generations of scientists. By the end of each conference, you’ve heard dozens of people dispense all their knowledge in 10-minute bursts, and you sometimes leave feeling less informed than before you arrived. Where’s the dialog? Where’s the questioning? Where’s the innovation? It’s beyond time that scientific conferences themselves undergo the scientific process, and move forward.


Dr. Esther Ngumbi (@EstherNgumbi) is an Assistant Professor at the Entomology Department and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She is a Senior Food security fellow with the Aspen Institute. Dr. Brian Lovett (@lovettbr) is a recent PhD from the University of Maryland Department of Entomology. His work has contributed to the advancement of transgenic mosquito-killing fungi for malaria prevention.

Drab and predictable as these conferences are, they are integral to science. They are the primary venue for scientists to present new research to peers and colleagues, get early feedback, learn about new research tools and techniques, and birth new ideas through serendipitous conversations. Evidence suggests that presented research is more likely to be cited in published studies. These meetings also provide a venue to build connections and find potential collaborators and, for graduate students, potential advisors.

But are they inclusive? Apart from one-way flow of information, the costs associated with attending conferences can exclude many scientists from participating. While grants and scholarships often make it possible for scientists to pay for the travel costs, many have to spend the money first before they can be reimbursed. For many graduate students, international students, and early-career scientists, coming up with these funds upfront can be challenging.

And what about the dry format? Does the predominant stream of posters and lectures still benefit science? Why the deluge of printed posters when we are battling climate change? Why an onslaught of 10-minute presentations and only a few slots for a robust discussion? All these questions beg for scientific inquiry.

First, it’s important to reflect on why the scientific community has been reluctant to change. Of course, it is easy to accept the status quo, especially if there are no immediate consequences for not changing. Unlike teaching, where we have real consequences when we fail to modernize, such as poor evaluations and losing enrollment, there are no real consequences for the professional societies organizing the meetings or for presenting scientists.

At the heart of these questions is the nature of our scientific discourse. In keeping with our training, how we choose to disseminate information must be able to stand up to scrutiny. Decades of tradition should not supersede bold changes to scientific discourse attainable by relatively recent innovations like social media, video conferencing, and other relevant technology. These tools can be leveraged to make conferences more productive and to invite more perspectives into the scientific conversation.

The good news is that researchers, professional societies, and conference organizers are beginning to ponder on these questions.

The "unconference" is one of the modern-day conferences that reflects a step in the right direction. In this format, delegates from diverse research fields set the agenda, not the conference organizers themselves. Also, because delegates set the agenda, everyone’s voice is included. The Science Foo Camp is one unconference example that has been adopted by scientists from a variety of fields, technologists, and thought leaders.

PowerPoint presentations aren’t going away, but they must build in feedback mechanisms within the talk. These mechanisms should encourage inclusive participation where ideas are heard, discussed, and ultimately remembered. Audience participation will ensure each discussion is unique, otherwise a single speaker can easily parade the same canned talk to multiple conferences, to diminishing effect.

At the recent Entomological Society of America meeting, for example, some presentations had built-in anonymous polls and questions that audience members were able to answer during the presentation. Doing so encouraged participants to be alert and to provide feedback to the presenter. This meant the audience helped to guide the presentation. Equally important is the need to give the audience the opportunity to give constructive criticism about the talk. A large number of scientists attending the meeting also teach, and, because they are evaluated, many tend to make the classrooms exciting, including incorporating several activities during the class. Presentations of the future should include anonymous evaluations.

Impressive is the fact that many professional societies have diversified the presentation formats and are including more virtual presentations, roundtables, and working groups to be inclusive while creating the environment that allows for more interactions and multidirectional communications.

Formats can and should vary depending on the conferences’ subject and participants, but a more perfect conference would look like this: From the start imagine not feeling anxious about how to pay for travel and accommodation upfront. Instead, universities and research institutions have in place policies that proactively cover these costs. Then you arrive at a conference where everyone’s voice and ideas were included in determining the agenda. And because you feel included you are motivated to actively participate. The presentations are robust, interactive, and full of dialog. Time slots aren’t organized by scientist, but by scientific goals shared by interdisciplinary scientists. And because the presentation is interactive you come away from the presentation with new understanding of our momentum toward solving that societal problem.

Much more can be done, and many more minds need to be thinking about modernizing the scientific conference. We live in a world where technology and innovations happen every day. New technologies should allow us to change the frequency with which scientific conferences occur and the formats with which they should happen. Change won’t be easy. Perhaps it's time for a conference reimagining the conference format for the new decade.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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