The conference blues

2017-03-20

Imagine this scenario. You’re sitting in a dim lit conference room in a fancy ski resort listening to a scientific presentation but you’re struggling to keep your eyes open. Maybe it’s the jetlag after the intercontinental flight that took you there. The topic is right up your street but those eyelids keep descending like theater curtains. Maybe it’s the cumulative tiredness from being focused during the previous 6 or 7 talks of the session. Maybe it’s the horrid multi-panel slides narrated in monotonic jargon. The coffee isn’t helping either. And then it hits you. The conference blues.

A sudden sense of guilt and inadequacy takes hold. Thousands of dollars spent in flights, accommodation and registration fees to sit in front of the most renowned scientists in the field and suddenly your brain turns to mush. Subsequent networking is obliterated since you failed to take notes of what was said and by the time the poster session comes around your motivation levels have plunged lower than the British pound after the Brexit referendum. Conferences are a crucial form of scientific interaction and the starting point of inumerous collaborations and ideas but it’s typical format offers many obstacles to a productive scientific environment.

The first hurdle is, of course, the exorbitant cost of getting to and accommodating at the conference site, often an unnecessarily luxurious venue. This alone keeps many scientists from poorer countries away, even considering the available travel grants.

Then there’s the overambitious scientific programmes. Organisers try their best to invite the best speakers in the field and throw in some short talks but this often results in extremely long sessions capable of eroding the attention of even the most dedicated academic. This, coupled with the unavoidable jetlag, is why yawing, head-dropping and the occasional snore are common towards the last hours of a conference day.

And finally there’s the presentations themselves. Scientists, particularly the more senior ones, tend to pack their presentations with overloaded slides that are flipped at olympic speed in an attempt to squeeze a few years of work in a 30 minute slot. The bulk of the audience is left in further befuddlement. Increasing the dynamism of conferences could be the way forward. For instance, have shorter sessions with a few 10 to 15 minute talks where the idea is to give a concise glimpse into unpublished data. Shorter presentations require more discipline and are often of better quality. This would be followed up by networking sessions where scientists can interrogate the speakers and further discuss the data thus minimising the time spent as passive listeners. Encouraging established scientists to have post-docs or students present the lab’s data could energise the networking sessions by bringing younger scientists to the conversations. Such changes might keep the eyelids up and the conference blues away.