I recently attended a very useful scientific conference and workshop on a specific area of solar energy – a process known as singlet fission. I won’t go into details about the science here, but it’s a way of potentially harnessing the extra energy that is normally wasted in normal photovoltaics and if successful could significant raise the efficiency of solar devices.

There were some fantastic presentations with interesting results presented throughout the few days of presentations, and I came away feeling excited to think about and try out some new ideas. On the other hand I also came away incredibly frustrated – with all these incredibly smart people in the room we never had a chance to really sit down and talk about and digest all of these presentations. I wanted to be a fly on the wall for every conversation that researchers had at the poster session and try and tease out what all the professors were thinking of and talking about with their colleagues. But why can’t we make this happen?

This popcorn represents what could happen if a brainstorming session between scientists… ok it’s a stretch. I just wanted to use this somewhere.

I mulled this over with some fellow graduate students and identified some problems and solutions with these type of scientific conferences. I want to address the structure of these events, which is pretty typical:

  1. Speaker presents recent results from their lab for 20-30 min
  2. Questions to the speaker, 5-10 min
  3. Repeat
  4. Poster session + alcohol

While this does work fairly well as a way to disseminate research results quickly to an audience, it really cuts down on the most important part of these conferences: the discussions and debates between the researchers! Sometimes this begins to happen in the questions session after a talk as happened this most recent conference. There are some rather difficult questions to be addressed in the singlet fission community and there is disagreement between certain mechanisms and pathways. After a talk presenting data supporting one side or the other a pretty healthy discussion would begin to emerge between the audience and the speaker and between audience members themselves. However just as it was getting interesting it was typically cut off in the interest of time and to get the next speaker started.

Certainly there is ample time for informal discussion between researchers during poster sessions and food breaks, but with even a small number of attendees (~50) it’s already difficult to talk in depth with everyone you would like. In addition, the conversations happen in small clusters of 2-5 individuals, who may come up with some really good ideas or may hit some problem that they can’t solve right there. There may be some other group of individuals across the room that could benefit greatly from those ideas or have some data that could solve their problems but they’re not in the same conversation!

I propose that for a “Workshop” style conference the amount of presentations be reduced while the amount of formal discussions with the whole group be increased. Potentially three or four researchers working on similar systems or problems present short 15 min presentations highlighting their important findings, and then there is a half hour long moderated session that is focused on the topic of those presentations with all the presenters available for discussion with each other and with the audience.

It’s an incredibly rare event to get some of the leading researchers in a specific field working on a specific scientific problem and it seems like a waste not to have them all talk to each other at the same time! It could be just a large brainstorming session. For instance these discussions could focus on questions like: How do we explain the differing results from two different experiments? What are the most important questions to focus on with future experiments? What sorts of experiments would be most useful for the rest of the community?

In a sense, this appears to me to be an extension of the relative isolation of scientific research. Most researchers have their lab and they run their experiments, they’re focused on earning grants for their lab, tenure, publishing papers as the primary investigator. This is completely understandable though, as those are the priorities in the reserach community. Even though I believe it results in better science, there’s no inherent incentive  for the researcher. I think there’s much more to be explored here about how scientists tend to work in isolation – or even in competition with one another – despite the widespread availability of communication tools facility collaboration. I can imagine something like a shared online space or dropbox tool but for data to be instantly shared between research groups working in the same area.

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4 responses »

  1. Aaron V. says:

    At one of the conferences I’ve been to a few times they used to hold a “Rump Session” in the evening one night. They would pick a ‘controversial’ topic and assemble a panel of 5-6 experts. There would be a moderator who would start the discussion, and then it would evovle into questions from the audience and debate among the panel members, audience, etc. I should mention there were also copious amounts of alcohol involved.

  2. Dave Vallett says:

    We talked about this for ISTFA a lot bc I had the exact same issues. So we rearranged the agenda a bit so that ‘user groups’ aligned with paper presentation sessions, so after the papers were presented (same format as you describe) a ‘user group’ session is held where there is a moderator and free-form comments and optional informal presentations. Sort of like a rump session or author’s corner. I agree 100% BTW – it’s SO HARD to get travel money these days and when we DO manage to get all the world’s experts in one place the REAL FRUITFUL discussions are left to chance in restaurants, bars, and break areas. It drives me nuts.

  3. Yes. We need more time for listening to each other. Now that visual arts are part of the university system, these studies also become increasingly fragmented.

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