What comes to mind when you think of a scientist at a conference? What about when the conference is being held somewhere nice like Hawaii, a ski resort, Italy, or France? Does this make it a boondoogle? Should the government severely regulate or stand in the way of scientists attending these meetings?
Well they do, and it is harming the quality of science in the United States. In addition to harming science it isn’t saving any money, but rather costing more money. The scandal isn’t scientists attending conferences, but rather the government’s mismanagement of the scientific enterprise to such a massive degree.
I attend a number of conferences each year (probably on the order of five to eight a year). As a working scientist this is an absolute necessity for success. It is a responsibility as a researcher to actively participate in the presentation of new research findings and as part of the peer audience. Additionally, it is an essential form of continuing professional education. As I’ve matured, the organization of conferences and associated sub-meeting or mini-symposia has become a staple of my professional work. It is important work, and the challenges have become excessive lately.
The attendance at conferences of those who either work for, or are funded by the federal government is being heavily scrutinized. The reason was a General Services Administration (GSA) conference in 2010 that was quite a boondoggle. The GSA management in organizing and structuring the meeting showed exceedingly poor judgment.* They probably should have lost their jobs, which would have been a rational response. As most people know, the governmental response is far from rational. Like most scandals, the over-reaction has been worse and more expensive than the original scandal itself. The costs incurred by the administration of conference attendance and extra costs through delays, and unnecessary management attention on the topic makes it clear that money is not the issue. Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is the goal. The system is succeeding in producing an environment that is increasingly hostile to scientific research, and undermines the advance and practice of science. Another more poetic way of stating the approach would be dubbing it as a “circular firing squad.”
So why do scientists need to attend conferences?
We can start by talking about what a conference is and what purpose it serves. Typically a conference is associated with a defined technical field such as “Compressed Sensing” or a professional organization such as the “American Physical Society” or a combination of the two. Conferences come in all shapes and sizes. Some meetings are enormous (think meetings of societies such as the American Geophysical Union) to small topical workshops on emerging fields with 20 or 30 scientists. Each has immense importance to science’s progress. The key aspect of the conference is the exchange of information, with people taking a number of distinct roles: presenter, audience, critic, connector, teacher, and student… A conference is enormously important to the conduct of science. The exchange of ideas and subsequent debate, sharing of common experience, friendships all play a key role in successful research.
Judging by how conference attendance is managed the main goal of attending a conference is giving a talk. Everything else is secondary. This is where the damage crosses the line over into outright malpractice. When a young scientist joins the new community sometimes the best thing to do is have them attend a conference and absorb the breadth and depth of the field. It also provides an avenue to meet their new colleagues, and learn the culture by immersing themselves in it. This is almost impossible today.
The benefits of attending conferences go well beyond the purely technical aspects of the profession. Conferences are where new ideas are presented or different ideas are debated in open forum. Sometimes different points-of-view can be engaged directly leading to breakthroughs that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. There is something special about human beings sharing a meal together that cannot be replicated in other ways. Conferences are key in developing vibrant technical communities that empower the advance of science and technology. My government’s response to a stupid GSA scandal is putting all of these benefits at risk.*
I’ve quipped that we should have a special conference center is some awful place where no one would want to go. That way the Congress and public would know that we go to the conferences to engage in technical work. On the other hand, part of going to conferences involves getting inspired to do better work. Why not go to some place that is inspiring? Why not go to some place that has great restaurants so that the sharing of the meal can be memorable on multiple levels? Why not make the entire event memorable and worthwhile and enriching at a personal level? At the core of the attitude of many in government is a sense that life should be suffered with work being the most unpleasant aspect of them all. It is a rather pathetic point of view that leads to nothing positive. We shouldn’t be punished for working in the public sphere, yet punishment seems to be the objective.
Let me get to the point of attending conferences in foreign countries. Science is international, now more than ever. Thanks to lousy funding, lousy education and lousy management (with the topic here being the latest example) a lot of the best science happens in other countries. It always has, but the balance has been tipped ever more toward Europe, China, India… The mismanagement of conference attendance is some ways is completely consistent with the mindset that is overturning the United States’ supremacy in science. One can argue that like the health of the American middle class, we are already second rate in many regards. The mismanagement of science is simply driving this outcome ever more strongly. Politicians, the citizens who put them in office, and the vested interests funding campaigns care little about the state of science in the United States. We are working to undo the sort of advantage the United States had during most of the 20th Century. Corporations seem to care little especially considering that they don’t really abide by borders thus science in Europe or China can benefit them as well. It is the rank and file citizens of the United States who will suffer the economic price for the lack of scientific discovery and technological innovation precipitated by the systematic mismanagement we see today.
Scientists are people and we respond to the same things as everyone else. The attendance of conferences is an essential aspect of doing science, the current approach and attitude toward conferences is undermining the quality and effectiveness of science. This should deeply concern every citizen because the quality of science has a direct impact on society as a whole. Whether your concerns are grounded on the health of the economy, or the National security, or our role as World leaders, science plays a key role in success. In the process of our systematic mismanagement of the scientific enterprise we are failing each of these.
* In an earlier version of the post I incorrectly identified the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as the government agency responsible for the scandalous conference in 2010.