Scientific Unconferencing

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?

Categories: academic life, conferences
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Comments (7)

  1. BrianR says:

    “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…”
    I think it would work (and I’ve seen it work) but at relatively small meetings. The real big ones like GSA or AGU are just too big … but perhaps smaller section meetings or special research conferences.

  2. Richard Simons says:

    I’ve mainly been to relatively small meetings where there has been useful time devoted to discussions. To me, there is little that can substitute for a live discussion while actual results can be picked up from other sources.
    A colleague said that, as far as lively discussion went, the best conference he attended was one in which, as people arrived, they were given a foam plastic brick with the instruction to throw it at any speaker if they disagreed with what was said. It was the ultimate ice breaker.

  3. Peter Selkin says:

    Apparently at the 2007 AGU Virtual Globes session, they used a trick of scheduling to get this kind of discussion going: the session’s talks were scheduled in the morning, and the posters in the afternoon of the same day. That way, presenters from the talks could mill around, mix and mingle with the poster presenters, and discuss ideas that came out of the talks. It’s not exactly an un-conference, but may be the best you can do at a big meeting. (BTW – I wasn’t there to see how this worked. Does anybody know if it was successful?)

  4. Andrew says:

    I think you’ve pointed out what’s unsatisfying about so many sessions. As a learner (rather than a researcher, which I’m not), I gravitate toward coordinated talks by invited speakers. They’re closer in spirit to teach-ins; they’re more one-way than the colloquy that you’re seeking. I always wonder what the small, hand-picked Chapman conferences of the GSA are like–maybe that’s the ideal for a researcher.

  5. Lab Lemming says:

    Sometimes interaction happens by accident- see point three of:

  6. Chris Rowan says:

    It occurred to me last night that the AAPG Lusi session was a step in this direction.
    As for the “big meeting” thing, I suppose the real disadvantage of this set-up would be for the browsers who flit between multiple sessions in a single time-slot…

  7. Kim says:

    The Cutting Edge teaching workshops that I’ve been to have worked best when there were discussions (combined with activities to try things to get us to experiment with alternate styles of teaching). It’s hard to get academics to stop pontificating, though – I’ve seen sessions that were supposed to be guided discussions turn out to be powerpoint presentations.
    I haven’t been to a Penrose conference or a GSA field conference. I bet the field conferences, at the very least, involve a lot of discussion. (Professional field trips usually do, especially if they are relatively small. The New England Intercollegiate Field Conferences are notorious among the local colleges for the vigorous debates that go on.)