Some thoughts on conferencing in our current times

 

This is a very different of post to my previous ones – although the focus is still on traveling for science. Today I want to talk about what priorities we should set for improving the lot of younger scientists in our field.

Having returned from the annual neuroscience nerdfest attended by about ~ 29K attendees this year in San Diego, I got to thinking about what makes an excellent conference & what I personally find desirable about a scientific meeting. I typically only regularly go to 2 annual scientific meetings/year [but will, of course, go to additional ones if I get invited to speak at them]. The annual meetings that I have regularly attended for ~25 years or so are: 1. Organization for Human Mapping [which was held in Singapore this last June] & that typically has ~3K attendees; 2. Society for Neuroscience [SfN] [which just occurred in San Diego] & that typically has ~30K attendees. This year in San Diego the number was smaller – perhaps a consequence of the non-attendance of many foreign neuroscientists who were not issued visas by the American Government. This was very problematic – there were many empty poster boards – because the presenters were preventing from attending the meeting. There is currently a grass-roots push to lobby SfN to create a vehicle for these people to show & discuss their work. The science community is also petitioning SfN to give a complete refund for conference registration etc. for those people [usually trainees] who could not travel to SfN because of these issues. Flights & hotel room booking left many of those out of pocket – despite the fact that they could not attend the meeting. Incredibly, despite the SfN President publicly talking about inclusion & international participation in the meeting the entire week while we were in San Diego, the SfN has stayed silent & completely inactive on this issue [at least until the time of writing this post]. Is this because SfN is so large that the implementation of initiatives is stifled because of a large administration, or is it because the organization is just parochial? Not sure which alternative is more likely at this stage, but I have my suspicions.

So what, in my opinion, makes for a great conference – a meeting that will keep people coming back for more?

First, the most important thing is to provide a welcoming atmosphere that stresses inclusivity & safety for all delegates [an environment that is free of old white male dinosaurs inflicting their will [& themselves in some cases] on everyone…].

Achieving an environment like that requires that the society/organization that runs the meeting do more than just pay lip-service to these issues. There needs to be visible evidence of concrete initiatives to attempt to level the playing field for all & to push diversity. There should also be a very public declaration of what constitutes acceptable behavior at the meeting & associated social activities. Many societies are doing this now – including SfN & OHBM. We are generally pretty fortunate in science – scientists of all persuasions typically do come together & discuss science in a collegial way. Let’s tear down any remaining barriers that a minority of senior white male scientists put in the way to stop this from occurring. If need be, we might need to drown out those voices & also call out unacceptable behavior when we see it – this means dealing immediately with observed instances of racial prejudice or sexual harassment, or of senior scientists just taking up air time from younger ones whose views deserve to be heard… I am fortunate to say that this has never happened to me at a conference, but that does not mean that I am not aware that this is a problem. I had a pleasure of attending the Neural Oscillations Social at SfN – a wonderful evening hosted by Jonas Obleser & Saskia Haegens. At the same time as our social there was also a social on Neuroethics & the scuttlebutt I heard about this one was that this latter problem [hogging air time] had surfaced. Ironic isn’t it? Neuroethics of all things! I wish I had been a fly on that wall to know exactly what happened there – the ‘feel good’ vibe at the Neural Oscillations social was too good to leave.

OHBM has been good in setting up initiatives, such as a committee for diversity, as well as having discussions on the Program Committee that make sure that we have diversity in our Keynote speakers and so on. I know that SfN also tries to do this. What I would like to see more of in both societies, particularly SfN, is the recognition of scientific excellence that transcends gender. That was very apparent to me in San Diego as SfN awards were given out – the idea that scientific excellence can exist only in ivy-league institutions from work by scientists who have impeccable scientific pedigrees is very dated, methinks… As someone who grew up in another part of the world where funding for science was not as abundant, I learned that scientific excellence [e.g. good ideas, painstaking methods] are not reserved for elite institutions of learning – even though people over the years have tried to tell me so. [Seriously, this is what I heard a lot while I was at Yale – thankfully not from my mentors or the folks who worked in our laboratory].

Second, if inclusivity exists at a scientific meeting, this automatically sets up an open & free environment to discuss important, controversial & unresolved scientific issues – this is what pushes the field forward & everyone benefits from that! This has become a highly visible & positive component of the OHBM meeting. Why is this so you might ask? Because it comes down to the attitudes of the leadership of the society – if the leadership values these goals, then the meeting will get that overall feel. What has been good about the leadership of OHBM over the years is that it has tried to change with the times. OHBM Council has had both older & younger scientists as members & the older scientists have known what to do to remain current with the times. Unfortunately, I cannot see that SfN has changed in that way. I have been a member of SfN for 25 years & it seems to me that the leadership i.e. elected officers etc. has not reflected the diversity we have in the regular SfN membership. SfN will be 50 years old next year. This is an incredible achievement & something that really needs to be celebrated. What better way to do that by turning over a new leaf in the annals of the SfN & embracing diversity in all it’s forms? This means championing it, not only from the podium, but from concrete initiatives that are clearly visible to the membership, as well as using its considerable lobbying power to influence public opinion & politicians about science & making the world a much better place than it is today. I see this happening at the OHBM meeting yearly & I always come back from this meeting with a real buzz… If we cannot make the world a better place for others in the present, as well as for the future, then why are we practicing science in the first place?

So as not to end on a negative note here: let me share with you my highlights of SfN. First, the session on the first day of the meeting, entitled Dialogues between Science & Society featured the very talented jazz musician & composer Pat Metheny. He was an absolute delight to listen to – he was able to clearly articulate about his very high goals that he sets himself for every performance, as well as giving the audience an idea of what goes through his mind as he improvises during a jazz solo & how he composes music.

SfN2018_2

Needless to say also, the special & keynote lectures were all excellent – with engaging & diverse speakers delivering accessible talks of a very high-standard to interested large audiences.

I did have a second highlight – a very personal one – almost embarrassed to admit it. But here goes anyway… as always I enjoy going around the commercial exhibits & looking for new equipment/software,& of course books. Nice to see our ‘MEG-EEG Primer‘ with Riitta Hari on sale at the Oxford University Press stand! So if you are new to MEG or EEG, check it out – it is targeted to you, & you might find it helpful… [see https://global.oup.com/academic/product/meg-eeg-primer-9780190497774?cc=us&lang=en& it is available on Amazon & Google Play]

SfN2018_4.JPG

OK. I admit it. That was a shameless promotion…

So at every scientific meeting you go to there is always an iconic image that remains with you after you have left the meeting. So what image will stay in mind from San Diego this SfN for me?

SfN2018_5

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