Could we improve discussion at life science conferences?

I have been to a lot of Biology conferences during my scientific career so far, ranging from very intimate meetings with around 30 people to bigger ones with just over 100 people. I have always enjoyed conferences a lot. I receive feedback about my research, I get to meet other scientists who work on similar things, often new collaborations arise, and I feel that my work is being put into a “bigger picture”.

After having experienced the format of the Science Communication Conference, I have been thinking about how life science conferences are held. In my opinion, feedback, discussion and networking are the most important reasons why one should attend a conference and present their results. It never even occurred to me that there might be other ways to organise sessions. I think that scientific conferences are doing alright in terms of feedback, but could improve discussion and networking. I am going to split my thoughts into two articles and start with the one about discussion.

The format of every life science conference I have been to was approximately the same. Each day is divided into sessions, usually a couple of hours long, with every session covering a certain topic (e.g. “Membrane Trafficking”, “Cytoskeleton”). In that session, one or two invited speakers talk about their research for usually 45 minutes, which includes a few minutes of questions at the end of their presentation. The remaining session time is assigned to speakers chosen from submitted abstracts. They each have 15-20 minutes to talk about their research, which again includes a few minutes of discussion at the end of their presentation.

The advantage of this system is that it allows a large number of researchers to present their results and receive feedback from the expert audience. The main disadvantage is, that only very few people can fully concentrate on such a wide variety of research topics for a whole day. There are popular slots, which are the ones in the morning or directly after coffee breaks, because the listeners’ minds will still be fresh. Speakers who are scheduled directly before lunch or at the very end of a long day generally have a hard time, as the ability of the audience to concentrate inevitably reaches a deep low at this point.

At the Science Communication Conference, the sessions I attended were structured in a different way. They were less dense, involved more discussion and I found them generally easier to follow. A session lasted around 1.5 hours and started with one to three speakers, who each gave a presentation about their topic (between 10 and 20 minutes). This was followed by an extended discussion where everyone sat down around a table. The chair of the session took questions from the audience, which were then answered by one or several speakers and often led to discussion between speakers and the chair. In the “Growing Concerns” session about engagement of the public with GM issues, several questions were taken in a row by the chair and repeated to the speakers. Speakers had then time to take notes of the question directed to them and prepare their answer to it.

The main advantage to this format is that a session is being broken up into pure listening and an interactive discussion, and so appears less intense than a scientific session. As all speakers are experts in a shared field, they all can contribute to audience questions and also discuss questions among themselves.

In scientific conferences, the discussion time at at the end varies immensely and depends heavily on the speaker and the chair of the session. In theory everyone is asked to leave three to five minutes for questions at the end of their talk. In reality, some talks allow a good discussion because the speaker finished on time, or because the chair was doing a good job and being ruthless. Some talks are far too long and so allow only one question, or sometimes even no discussion at all. Complex questions are often postponed into the coffee or lunch break because they would take too much time to answer. However, only a few people (and in many cases people who already know the speaker) will then be able to join the discussion, whereas a large part of the audience might have been interested in it and been able to contribute to it.

I believe that life science conferences could benefit from a similar format: Instead of lining up a number of speakers who talk in a linear fashion, get all speakers of a session around a table to form a panel of experts for a certain topic. Allow everyone to present their data and after that, provide sufficient time for discussion with questions from the audience, which could be either directed to a single person or to the whole panel. Science thrives on different views and disagreements between experts. Most scientific views are models which all have their advantages and disadvantages. Every technique has its positive points and drawbacks.

I could imagine that a public discussion between experts about key questions in a field would be very interesting and benefitial for the whole audience. By allocating a sufficient time frame for discussion, its importance would be emphasised and set the tone for an atmosphere of active exchange rather than passive listening. And finally, it would allow the audience to relax from the very intense flow of information, give them time to process their thoughts and maybe come up with questions which they would not have thought of in the narrow time frame of a couple of minutes.

On the 25th and 26th May the annual Science Communication Conference, organised by the British Science Association, took place in London. I was able to attend after receiving a bursary from the BSA and came home very inspired and motivated.

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1 comment for “Could we improve discussion at life science conferences?

  1. May 30, 2011 at 12:06

    I agree the discussion was very good at SCC, but I thought the networking was easily the best of any conference (indeed, one session was devoted to speed networking), and it was that which helped make the discussions more friendly, accessible and collegial.

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