SciFoo review

It’s three weeks since Science Foo Camp, which now seems both a lifetime ago and only yesterday. In that time we’ve received tons of feedback from the people who came, and I’ve attended O’Reilly’s technogeek Foo Camp (the original inspiration for SciFoo). So perhaps this is a good time to review what we did, consider how it went, and start outlining plans for the future.

I’m not going to try and cover the contents of the sessions and other discussions that took place. These have been quite widely blogged — see, for example, the links under my Connotea tag ‘scifoo’.

A scientific experiment

If the truth be told, there was a lot of handwringing among the SciFoo conspirators (and a few trusted advisors) as to whether or not holding a Science Foo Camp would make any sense at all. Unlike technogeeks, perhaps scientists from very different disciplines don’t have that much to say to each other, and perhaps scientists’ own rather conservative instincts would make it difficult for them to enter fully into the freewheeling, almost anarchic spirit of a Foo Camp. On the other hand, isn’t Foo Camp a generic way to bring together any group of interesting and interested people to create a kind of intellectual chain reaction? If so, why shouldn’t it work in science, which certainly contains many people of the right type and calibre?

I was certainly of the latter, optimistic view, but it’s one thing to think, and even argue, that point, and quite another to drag a lot of busy and important people, in some cases half way across the world, in order to test the hypothesis. That takes some cojones (as they say in parts of California), and perhaps not a small measure of insanity.

It’s also true that Foo Camp, which lacks any formal aims or outcomes, is difficult to assess objectively. So when colleagues asked me before the meeting how I would judge its success, I told them that if most attendees were keen to come back again then it would have achieved its goals. And if not then not.

So how did it go on that measure? Well, here are some typical terms used by Science Foo Campers in their emails afterwards:

“Brilliant!!”, “amazing”, “great”, “marvellous”, “creative”, “wonderful”, “splendid”, “mind-expanding”, “eye-opening”, “a great head-spinner”, “fantastic”, “cool”, “fun”, “exciting”, “stimulating”, “relaxing”, “stimulating and relaxing”, “seminal”, “inspiring”, “terrific”, “a blast”, “incredible”, “rich and wonderful”, “outstanding”, “astounding”, “truly unique”.

Wow, thanks! 🙂 Many compared it very favourably with other events they had attended:

“That was the most interesting and generally exciting thing I’ve attended that I can remember”

“Science Foo was probably the best conference I have ever been to.”

“[A] terrific event for which I heard universal praise… the scientific interactions that were taking place, made the meeting one of the more exciting and satisfying that I’ve attended in years.”

“[T]he best meeting I have been to in a very long time, really inspirational.”

“I’ve been telling everyone that it’s probably the best conference I’ve ever attended, precisely because of the consistently high quality of the people and the small size.”

“Science Foo was the best conference I can remember in my life, and I’ve been to a lot of them… Thinking about what made this Foo different from all other conferences, I realized that people brought their whole selves to this conference, their hopes, foibles, humor, outrageousness, brilliance, good intent, and little to no ego in the “look at me” sense. It was fantastic.”

Others agreed with that last point, and the Foo Camp format itself came in for a lot of praise:

“Considering the shear weight of brain power that was at the event, and the corresponding potential for a clash of egos, it was refreshingly collegiate.”

“I was amazed by how quickly a feeling of a community developed.”

“[T]he self-organizing part had me worried at first. I shouldn’t have been.”

“The Foo model in which you all turn up and populate the chart of one-hour sessions with your ideas is great.”

“Everyone loved it… it’s a great model… There wasn’t any one there I didn’t want to listen to, and I think everyone felt the same way.”

See also the recent Nature editorial about SciFoo, which ends:

[A]bove all, it was the mode of spontaneous organization that gave the meeting a drive that is unusual and worth promoting. If this is what a talking-shop can be like, let’s have more of them.

So, to the question, “Does the Foo Camp format work for scientists?”, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”. In fact, I think that it can work in any area of human endeavour in which (i) there are people with diverse ideas to share, and (ii) the domain is sufficiently large that most participants don’t already know each other. For example, many years ago I spent a while working as a business consultant and I think a Business Foo Camp could be made to work just as well. (In fact, I think that someone should definitely do it.) And why not Law Foo Camp, Economics Foo Camp, God Foo Camp, Good Food Camp… you name it. (Disney have, of course, already done Pooh Camp.)

Like all truly great ideas (think General Relativity, Wikipedia, and banoffee pie), the Foo Camp concept is just a little bit crazy. That very attribute — along with the fact that it actually works — is precisely what makes it a great rather than merely good. This also makes it hard for people to imagine Foo Camps actually working until they have seen it for themselves, which is probably one reason that the Foo Camp concept has yet to spread further.

Unintended consequences

One way in which Science Foo Camp is different from most scientific conferences is that it hinges on meeting people you’ve never met — and may never even have heard of — from well outside your own area of expertise. To this end, there was a much greater-than-usual diversity of attendees, by which I mean not just scientists from across different disciplines, but also technologists, writers, funders and business people. Perhaps as a result of this, tangible outcomes (from this, a meeting with supposedly few tangible aims) were pleasingly common. For example, a collaboration formed between an endocrinologist and an epidemiologist, who realised that their work had much more in common that they had previously supposed. Other examples:

“At the moment it looks like two new grant proposals may come out of relationships developed at camp. Thank you both for your efforts and inspiration.”

“I had an unexpectedly great time talking with public health researcher/officials (and I expect to collaborate with one) and made contact with [another attendee] whom I never would have met otherwise.”

“I had a great time at Sci Foo, and have already started to make use of the contacts and things I learned from the weekend in my everyday work. Thanks for making a great idea happen.”

“I met a number of people I’ve always wanted to talk to, may have established two new collaborations, got many new story ideas, and enjoyed the Google immersion experience.”

“Thanks again for scifoo, it was great for me, and has already led to some changes in my work and hopefully more in the future.”

“One important solid and hopefully fruitful connection was made between me and [another attendee]. I think we have a book in the works!”

Yet another attendee listed six varied, positive and tangible outcomes for their science education project. And in case the answer to the organisers’ main question it wasn’t already clear to us:

“Absolutely should do it again!”

Or, as one particularly enthusiastic delegate told me at the meeting:

“If you guys don’t do this again, you’re insane”

That made a nice change from being told beforehand that we were insane to do it. 😉 So, insane or not, we will be holding SciFoo again — Google, O’Reilly and Nature have all agreed on that. It will mostly likely take place near the beginning of August 2007 and will again be hosted at the Googleplex. (Thanks once more, Google!)

An open and closed case

All those positive comments notwithstanding, there’s plenty we can do to make the next one even better. The first SciFoo was a trial and was pulled together in two months flat, so it would be amazing if it were otherwise. For example, we want to make it easier for attendees to identify others with overlapping interests, especially outside the sessions. We also want to allow people to make better use of the time, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. And there are dozens of other things we’re considering, mostly small but significant all the same.

As far as I’m aware, the only aspect that came in for any significant criticism (though it was mainly from people who weren’t there) was the imposition of the Chatham House Rule, which basically says that you can’t quote or attribute a view to someone without their permission. This certainly isn’t “draconian”. Nor is an invitation-only event inconsistent with discussing openness in science. (If that were true then I wouldn’t have been able to discuss the topic with friends at the BBQ I held at my house yesterday.) But I can well understand why some people felt frustrated. Personally I’d be all for making things a bit more open next time if we can. As a Nature colleague wrote afterwards:

” I’d like the whole world to hear that it occurred, and just how awesome it was.”

I feel exactly the same. And it’s easy for me to say that the meeting should be completely open because I’m an obscure publisher and no one cares about what I say (except, sometimes, my mum). In contrast, some of the people who attended SciFoo are extremely prominent and I can understand them being on their guard if there’s a chance that anything they say might be blogged and used against them in evidence. As a result, when Tim O’Reilly and I put it to a vote on the first evening, the overwhelming consensus was to hold the meeting under the Rule, so that’s what we did.

It was interesting to witness a similar debate at O’Reilly’s own (original) technogeek Foo Camp this year. As I understood them, the rules there were a bit less strict, but there was still a feeling at the closing feedback session that trying to capture and broadcast Foo Camp conversations in a lot of detail (as some people wanted to do) would risk damaging the openness within the Camp that helps to make it so special. (I also happen to believe that doing this is not a hugely useful exercise and that doesn’t begin to capture the dynamic and atmosphere of the meeting, though I agree that for those who aren’t attending even this kind of coverage might be better than nothing.)

In the end we have to do what’s right for the success of the meeting itself, irrespective of the frustrations or criticisms of those who want to follow along at home. As someone who’s been not only a SciFoo organiser but also a three-time Foo Camp non-invitee, and therefore experienced this issue from both sides, I still believe that we did the right thing this time around. But if we can be more open next time then we will. (And if it’s any consolation, as one SciFoo Camper pointed out, there’s so much going on that even for those of us who were present it felt like we were missing most of it.)

My one regret is that we (well, I) failed to clarify one important issue: In it’s strictest interpretation, the Chatham House Rule says that you’re not even allowed to say who attended the meeting. We didn’t discuss this point with the SciFoo Campers (mainly because I was ignorant of it), so there was some uncertainly about things like taking photos of people and posting them on the web. My own feeling is that this kind of rule probably goes further than we need to for SciFoo (and several people broke it, me included). But, as I say, it’s ultimately up to the attendees to decide what they feel comfortable with.

Until next time

Speaking of attendees, we plan to invite a similar number (150-200 people) next year in order to keep things equally collegial and manageable. But we would also like to mix things up, so the overlap with this year’s invitation list is likely to be quite small. That’s partly because we want to meet new people and introduce them to the SciFoo concept, but also because we want our guests to meet new people too, and you don’t achieve that by inviting the same bunch every time. In addition, want to keep some of the edginess and unpredictability of the inaugural SciFoo, and to avoid any hints of cliquiness. So I think it likely that we’ll stagger our list, re-inviting people on a rolling basis and mixing in new people so that most individuals are invited back once every few years. If we end up doing that then I only hope that the eminent and engaging campers at SciFoo ’06 who don’t have a place next year will understand what we’re trying to achieve.

Above all, though, we mustn’t over-plan or over-engineer SciFoo ’07, which would be to dampen the very spirit of the event. So with that I’ll shut up. 😉


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