Many biomedical research conferences rehash old ideas rather than define key challenges. The problem is tied to fundamental issues in the research culture.
Guest contributors David Rubenson and Paul Salvaterra
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
The only thing worse than an incomprehensible scientific presentation is an entire day of them. Too often the whole is less than the sum of the individual talks. The problem is rooted in overly casual conference planning – reminiscent of Alice’s wanderings – that fails to build forward-looking agendas. This is a sign of fundamental issues that plague many scientific disciplines. Biomedicine, with few theoretical concepts, diverse data types, and connections to a confusing and gargantuan health care system, is particularly problematic.
How are conferences typically planned? A committee identifies a broad subject and invites well-known, reliable speakers. Planners fail to present specific goals, and speakers are equally incurious; happy to use existing slides, collect an honorarium, and add “invited talk” to their CV. In short, nothing much changes from one year to the next.
There are better ways. One is to design conferences around a provocative scientific question, for example, “Alzheimer’s Research: How do we move forward if mouse models don’t replicate the disease?” The keynote should provide context for the entire conference; articulating the question, explaining its importance, outlining the scientific debate, and explaining how individual talks will bring insight.
Each session requires a related question and introduction, like “What can we learn about Alzheimer’s from human-stem-cell-derived organoids?” Keynoters should frame issues broadly rather than focus on narrow aspects of their own research. Speakers should show how their research affects the conference theme, and avoid “canned” talks. Finally, they shouldn’t just talk about their success – scientists need to know about the limitations of any approach.
Planners should also strive for programs that break the drone of 45-minute slide presentations. Panels are helpful but effective moderators must outline focused lines of discussion in advance. Mixing traditional talks with 3 minute-3 slide “blitz briefings” is another approach. Why not stage debates and point-counterpoint discussions? Planners must also take responsibility for ensuring lively Q&A sessions. This might include seeding audience members with pre-planned questions to break the ice. A combination of scripting and innovation will lead to more inspiring conferences.
Unfortunately, the factors underlying today’s planning also discourages innovation. Too many researchers are pulled in too many directions. They’re overbooked, scrounging for funds, distracted by university committees and regulation. Most significantly, they work in a system where more is better: more papers, more grant dollars, more presentations, more postdocs, more more. Why plan a purposeful conference when a sloppy one takes a third the time? Why adapt a presentation to a particular conference when an existing talk will suffice?
Those interested in change should focus on planning smaller workshops. They should emphasise interactive discussions, with slides used sparingly, and only to support points in the discussion. A moderator should continually ask, “What experiments should we do next?” and commit to a post-workshop write up that describes alternative ways forward.
Organising smaller gatherings is a good step forward to improving the way we share science. But more is needed. Perhaps we should formally evaluate the effectiveness of each conference, as well as encourage training for conference planners and moderators.
Another option is to use professional conference editors. These editors would work with scientific leaders to develop compelling themes, formats, and promotional materials. They could work with speakers and moderators to make talks relevant and comprehensible. They could ensure that conference findings are articulated and disseminated. In essence, they would do for conferences what editors do for journals.
Is change really possible? Max Planck once wrote that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up.” A recent book draws attention to the prominent voices bucking this trend. The time and money wasted at ineffective conferences is an opportunity to test these competing theories. Young scientists should insist that conferences have greater purpose, those on the cutting edge should demand to be included in programs, and academic leaders should institute real reform.
David Rubenson is the associate director of administration and planning at the Stanford Cancer Institute. He also maintains a blog on scientific communication issues.
Paul Salvaterra is a professor of stem cell and developmental biology at the Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope.