I just returned from attending my second Gordon Research Conference in two months and I am surprised by what I have seen and heard. Or should I be? Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) were started in the 1920’s by Dr. Neil Gordon of Johns Hopkins University as a means to foster direct communication between scientists working in specific disciplines. The “spirit” of the GRC was to present unpublished data, making the meeting a cutting edge presentation of the latest and best findings from top laboratories. These days, one is considered a cavalier presenter if your talk includes data that are mere days from being accepted for publication, let alone including novel findings that are provocative, but may not as of yet be fully developed, and nowhere near ready for submission to a journal.
I am all for presenting older results, as some recent historical perspective often enriches the understanding of any new findings that are presented. This “review” also helps to educate the students and post-doctoral fellows attending the meeting, the conferees most likely to be less familiar with the history of the field. But I didn’t see any chances being taken at the meetings that I attended, which likely reflects the nature of scientific research today, at least in particular disciplines. With academic positions few, the number of PhD-holding ambitious young scientists many, I guess I can’t blame presenters for hoarding their most precious findings, so as to protect them from the “vultures” looking for the next great idea to pursue, or experiment to conduct, ready to call the kidnapped results their own intellectual property. However, this policy of data protection is bad for science and can transform a meeting into a delicate social interaction where one never knows if the person to whom he/she is talking will be the one to run back and duplicate a result, rushing to publish it quickly (unfortunately, given the competition of today, being the first to publish a key result may make the difference between getting tenure or finding a new job and home.) Therefore, the intellectual exchanges that are the hallmark of small meetings, and often the source of the best criticism for one’s work, are severely dampened.
I think that Dr. Gordon would be disappointed if he saw that his vision of small, intimate, cutting-edge meetings where scientific ideas can flourish and intermix had digressed to a state that differs little from the stereotypical large meetings (like SFN) where novel, unpublished findings are a rarity. For the record, here is the mission statement of the GRC:
"The Gordon Research Conferences provide an international forum for the presentation and discussion of frontier research in the biological, chemical, and physical sciences, and their related technologies…placing a premium on the “off the record” presentation of previously unpublished scientific results and on the consequent ad hoc peer discussion."
It is sad that our intellectual pursuit of knowledge through scientific research has become just like any other business venture…cut-throat, stressful, with a healthy dose of paranoid conservatism attached to everything. And to think, in my undergraduate naivety, I thought that by going into science I was going to avoid the abuses and misadventures that came with pursuing a career in corporate America.