Scientific collaboration and innovation are needed now more than ever. Several scientific and medical conferences are changing to meet the demand. (Jeremy Leung illustration)
Esther Ngumbi, Ph.D., has been to many conferences. An assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and a contributor to journals like Applied Soil Ecology and the Journal of Chemical Ecology, Ngumbi needs to attend scientific events to learn about the latest developments in entomology and plant pathology and to present her own work.
Brian Lovett, Ph.D., who conducts research in vector biology and mycology, is also a regular conference-goer. He’s taken home awards for his presentations at events like the European Congress of Entomology. After all of their time spent at conferences and congresses, Ngumbi and Lovett have come to a conclusion: Many of these events need to change.
In January, the two penned an opinion piece for WIRED — “Science Conferences Are Stuck in the Dark Ages” — questioning why conference design for those involved in scientific research has been so slow to evolve. They asked: “Where’s the dialog? Where’s the questioning? Where’s the innovation? 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?”
And aside from “the one-way flow of information,” the authors wrote, the costs associated with attending conferences can be prohibitively high for many scientists.
“It’s beyond time that scientific conferences themselves undergo the scientific process,” they wrote, “and move forward.”
“It’s beyond time that scientific conferences themselves undergo the scientific process, and move forward.” (Jeremy Leung illustration)
Certainly, some scientific conferences are guilty as charged. There are those medical and scientific events whose programs are rooted in the standard practice of one-way presentations — solo speakers who rely on poorly designed PowerPoint slides with large copy blocks in tiny fonts to drive home their points. Some events struggle to design networking functions that rise above those of the past: think open bar in a loud ballroom that makes conversations a challenge. And others charge significant registration fees — a sticking point for many young researchers who are already accumulating debt for their studies.
However, progressive organizations are doing exactly what Ngumbi and Lovett requested: They’re moving forward. In fact, the two cite Science Foo, an un-conference that asks participants to set the agenda themselves, and the Entomological Society of America’s recent meeting, which used anonymous polling to guide the presentation, as examples of the kinds of adjustments that make conference participation more meaningful.
It didn’t take long for Convene to uncover other scientific and medical events (links below) that are breaking with tradition — with initiatives that run the gamut from major overhauls to format enhancements to small tweaks — to design experiences that have a big impact.
After all, these are scientific and medical events. Shouldn’t experimentation be part of their DNA?
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