One of the things that made ScienceOnline09 such an enjoyable and (I think) effective conference was the “unconference” format, which aims to promote interaction and discussion between all of the attendees. In most cases, the people at the front would kicked off the session with some opening remarks, but for a large chunk of the allocated time they were ringmasters for an open forum, with contributions from anyone who wanted to comment.
This is a very different to a typical session at a scientific meeting, where you spend an hour trying to maintain concentration and focus as a series of selected speakers try to cram as much information as possible into their ten-minute slots, and in doing so lose half their audience in the first 30 seconds. You can still learn much about the latest research, but question-and-answer sessions are often rushed, and it’s rare to find yourself involved in the sorts of stimulating and intelligent discussions, with issues being examined from multiple viewpoints, that were a staple of the weekend before last.
The thing is, those conversations do happen. But they go on in the fringes – in the coffee breaks, and in the bars and restaurants around the conference hall. That’s where people sit down and discuss what was good and what wasn’t, strategies for solving the major problems in a field, and ideas for new research and collaborations stimulated by the day’s presentations. But these conversations are disconnected: they’re between sub-networks of friends and research colleagues. They could also be regarded as somewhat exclusionary, because the involvement of junior scientists is reliant on the changeable whims of the big names in their field; a lot of what a well-known scientist gets out of attending conferences is lost on a newbie.
But what if you added a bit of unconference dust to the scientific meeting? What if you devoted a useful chunk of a themed session to an open discussion – of the research presented, interesting stuff in the poster session, general themes, perceived gaps in the current research environment? Rather than half a dozen more limited discussions springing up in the evening after a session, you’d have it happening where everyone who is interested can hear it, and participate. The hierarchy problem may prevent or put off junior participants from speaking up, but at least they’d be witnessing these conversations, which are an important part of the whole scientific process. And who knows what getting such a large number of smart and interested people would accomplish. Wouldn’t that be a good use of everyone’s time?
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