The Death of the Scientific Conference?

Yesterday, I attended a my first MicroSeminar (#uSeminar) session, where Deric Learman gave an excellent talk on microbial redox, including the oxidation of Mn by Roseobacter Azwk-3b and how this process may be linked to the remineralization of refractory dissolved organic carbon.  30 minutes of live screen-shared presentation, followed by questions fielded from the Google Hangout and Twitter meant I could enjoy a great lecture given in the US, from the comfort of my desk, with no need to suffer jet lag or the sad look on my son’s face when I tell him I’m going away for a week to go to a conference.

It seems to me that with current technology, this format of seminars holds significant advantages over the traditional format of conferences:

Cost

Anyone who has been to a scientific conference knows they are expensive. Flights, hotels, registration fees and expenses eat into budgets. I’m going to a conference next week in the same building as my desk and it’s costing me $650. International travel eats into work and family time. There’s even the moral question of whether the carbon cost of travelling to remote destinations can be justified by the benefits gained from attending conferences (Should we really be flying scientists from around the world to Hawaii to talk about climate change?). Beyond the cost of running the computational infrastructure supporting webcast seminars, they are essentially free for all involved, which feeds neatly into another advantage:

Public Accessibility

Conference registration fees and  travel costs serve as a barrier to public access to science, that is wholly alleviated by webcasting seminars. Archiving of the seminars allows interested members of the public to enjoy the lectures at their leisure if they can’t participate in the live event. It also gives them the opportunity to read around the topic, re-watch the lectures with new understanding and learn. Imagine you’re a benthic ecologist and you decide to go to the “2014 Annual Quantum Mechanics of Deep Space” conference. Epic images of nebulae and quasars on Slide 1 of each presentation would fill you with excitement about the information to follow. However, a lack of expertise in the area means the language used to explain the content may as well come from Mordor. By slide 4 you would be lost and by slide 10 you would be checking Facebook. There is simply no way that at the end you are going to have the confidence to put up your hand and get involved in the discussion (typically the most effective part of learning). Now imagine you could revisit the lecture again once you’ve done some background reading. You’d understand a bit more and, importantly, be able to ask well-framed questions retrospectively via Twitter to a leading expert in the field. The speaker gains a broader audience than they would have otherwise and the public understands a bit more about what scientists are working on with their tax dollars. Everyone wins.

Reduced overload

The typical conference is a 4 day experience of wall-to-wall lectures from which we emerge overloaded and bleary-eyed into an endless hall of posters, each guarded by a sore-footed grad student proselytizing their new scientific advancement to anyone willing to glance away from the wall of text and make eye contact. At the best of times, the passive learning nature of lectures make them a difficult medium for judging scientific merit of an idea. When they are back to back it soon overwhelms and at the end of a conference there may be one or two talks or posters that stood out in your mind while the rest are forgotten. In contrast, regular weekly small doses of new scientific ideas encourages scientific curiosity and enables the participant to read around the topic of interest, thus broadening their knowledge into fields they might otherwise have ignored.

Equal Opportunity

Jonathan Eisen has long been a vocal champion of improving the diversity of speakers at STEM conferences, which suffers from a lack of childcare or child activity options and travel fellowships for students. With no need for an extended stay away from home and no travel costs to consider, the diversity of speakers offered up by web-based seminars such as MicroSeminar should reflect the diversity of experts in the field far more accurately than the current conference model.

Disadvantages

No system is perfect and there are several functions of the traditional conference model that are lost through the webinar model.

Social Interaction

Google Hangout is currently limited to 10 people, and it’s hard to think that even increasing that number would make for a more socially productive setting pre and post-seminar – large meetings are often dominated by the voices of only a few participants. Many scientists I’ve spoken to say the greatest benefit of going to a conference is the discussion of science that happens in small groups, typically over a glass or 5 of something delicious. Collaborations are born, ideas are proposed and countered, the state of funding is lamented within social support groups. It would be tough to capture that kind of interaction online. The MMORPG communities have shown that strong relationships and productive outcomes can be forged online when participants are sharing a common interest, or working towards a common goal, but typically the timeframes are longer than face-to-face interactions. That said, there is no reason ideas like MicroSeminar have to exclude real-world interaction –  an annual social get-together (called an ‘unconference‘ by those with no shame) could serve as a springboard for future collaborations and as platforms to discuss science in small groups over a drink. There’s also nothing preventing someone watching a MicroSeminar then emailing the presenter and saying ‘Hey, your research and mine align perfectly for a grant proposal I’ve got in mind – let’s have a skype meeting to discuss it’.

Poster sessions

In my humble opinion, posters sessions are about the least efficient method for disseminating scientific ideas. Lack of space prevents detail being discussed. Most of the posters in a room will be of little interest to your particular field and you have to find the ones that are. Standing and reading a wall of text while someone stares at you awkwardly, wondering if you are going to ask them a question is just plain weird. That said, they are typically the first opportunity for an aspiring grad student to get his or her work out into the scientific community and, importantly, can serve as initial interviews for potential candidates for postdoc positions. For the most part, blogging does a far better job of getting ideas across for the same reasons that archived seminars are a better platform – the opportunity to revisit, digest at your own pace and read around the subject (plus they pop up in search engines). However, getting exposure for a blog takes time. That would be partially alleviated if your PI is a well-established blogger and willing to provide a platform for their students to divulge their research as ‘guest posts’. There’s also nothing to stop grad students from giving video seminars about their work and linking to them from the PI’s website. Such seminars could be delivered either within or outside of schemes like MicroSeminar. I, for one, would much rather grab a coffee and watch a 15 minute video seminar detailing someone’s research and disseminated through Twitter than travel half way round the world to read a poster.

Marketing

I am aware that conferences have booths for journals, equipment suppliers etc., but I am yet to identify a benefit that these booths provide to the conference attendees, other than a lifetime supply of lanyards and print versions of latest journal editions to maximize the probability of baggage surcharges. I’m not sure I’d mourn their absence in a web-based seminar program.

Concluding remarks

Don’t get me wrong, I like going to conferences. When they are good, it is a joy to be immersed in science for a week with no distractions. They are a hotbed of creative thinking and nascent collaborations. However, MicroSeminar shows that it is perfectly possible to achieve a very similar result in a modularized, easily digestible format that is better for work/life balance, better for equal opportunities, better for budgets, better for public outreach and better for the environment than the traditional conference model. I think that the organizers and the speakers to date should be congratulated on a fantastic idea (and the choice of time to enable the broadest international involvement) and I will certainly be tuning in to the next one on the 18th of July. Anyone interested in the previous lectures can find them here

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One thought on “The Death of the Scientific Conference?

  1. Pingback: Origins | MicroSeminar

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