Analysis: 'I've a deck chair in physics'

September 7, 2001

Harriet Swain finds that academics at summer conferences are just as likely to pack swimming trunks as a trunk full of books.

It is a perfect blue-skied Venetian morning in August and you have just left your hotel in an old Augustinian monastery to catch a boat to a nearby island. Later, you will take a guided tour of Venice old town and then drink wine and eat canapes with the new friends you have made from around the world.

A luxury holiday? No, not exactly.

The real purpose of the trip for the 150 academics who took part this summer was exploring not the winding canals of the Veneto but quantum physics, including nanotechnology, optoelectronics and quantum chaos.

Physicists interested in these areas of research may have been torn between this and a few days in Nice for the 19th International Conference on Amorphous and Microcrystalline Semiconductors Science and Technology.

Or Lake Garda, venue for the Mysteries, Puzzles and Paradoxes in Quantum Mechanics, fourth edition conference. Or, of course, they may have preferred the seventh European Conference on Application of Accelerators in Research and Technology, which was taking place around the same time in Guildford, England.

So many international conferences take place that it would be possible to fill a summer with workshops, receptions, gala dinners and keynote speeches in various exotic locations, as well as those closer to home.

Jennifer Birkett, professor of French studies at the University of Birmingham and a committee member of the Standing Conference of Arts and Social Sciences, said international conferences were becoming increasingly important as more academics developed a global outlook and a desire to meet fresh people.

"You have to watch that if you go to the same kind of conference too much you are just meeting each other. If you go to a conference abroad you meet whole new networks. They are good fun but also extremely useful," she said.

She said that in modern languages new sources of funding from Europe and from research councils in this country were making it easier for UK delegates to attend overseas events.

Richard Templer, professor of biophysical chemistry at Imperial College, London, who is organising the Biophysical Chemistry 2001 conference at the college this month, said international conferences also tended to be better value than those in the UK.

He said: "Universities here have been so poorly funded over the past three decades that they see conferences as a way of making money. Facilities here are costing so much they are in danger of pricing us out of the market."

The cost of the biophysical chemistry conference, £220 for three days, excluding accommodation and the conference dinner, is about to double making it three times the price of similar events overseas.

Professor Templer said that if this continued it would make it increasingly difficult for UK scientists to showcase their work, which is one of the main functions of an international conference.

The public relations aspect is why such conferences are rarely short of invitations for venues. They offer an opportunity not only for universities to publicise themselves to key higher education figures from all over the world, but often for the city in which the university is located to show off its culture.

According to Kenneth Edwards, former president of the CRE, now the European University Association, one problem with this is that conferences can become quasi-national events with organisers having to tread carefully between the university and regional or even national politicians.

Most conferences will include at least one address from a local figure and a chance to sample the food, music and/or art of the location. Norwegian singers entertained the CRE's conference last year in Trondheim.

This year's EUA event in Dubrovnik will begin with a reception in the Franciscan Cloister in the heart of the old town. The main conference hotel in Dubrovnik overlooks the sea and has an indoor and outdoor swimming pool, jacuzzi and art gallery.

Professor Edwards said: "There is no doubt that people like going to nice places and are more willing to make the effort. Prague, for example, will tend to have a well-attended conference whereas Lille probably won't attract the same numbers."

Some disciplines seem to have more exotic locations than others. Astronomers, for example, often meet in Hawaii, where - conveniently enough - there is an international astronomy centre. Many physics and chemistry conferences seem to end up in Scandinavia.

But the attractiveness of a location depends on more than surface glamour. Professor Templer said he found Scandinavian conferences tended to be particularly useful and well organised while those in the United States were too big to make proper contacts.

Professor Edwards said that while big cities such as London or Berlin were often popular, delegates could become too dispersed to network effectively.

But there are drawbacks to having a venue that is too attractive. Maggie Woodrow, director of the European Access Network, recalled that at the network's annual conference last year in Santiago di Compostella, Spain, the organisers employed a guide to help people find their way between workshops on different campuses. Unfortunately, some delegates "deliberately or not" managed to follow a different guide altogether who was taking walking tours around the city.

At the previous year's conference in a Malta hotel by the sea, the easiest way of tracking down delegates proved to be a visit to the bar.

One way of coping with such insurgency is to include an adequate amount of time off in the conference programme.

"It is sensible to build in half a day and to organise some tours because if you don't do that or try to keep people somewhere outside a city they will take a whole or half a day off anyway," Professor Edwards said.

The Dubrovnik conference includes a tour of the Old Town and a visit to the Island of Lokrum. EAN conferences sometimes include free lectures on local art and culture by academics.

Also important are events for companions - what Ms Woodrow called the growing "alternative conference" of spouses, friends and "hangers-on", which it is sometimes difficult to stop delegates also attending.

These tours, along with the receptions, meals and gala dinners, are an essential part of cementing friendships and contacts. They also help to develop better understanding between academics from different countries, although it can be a cultural minefield.

Language, for example, is a sore point. Although English is increasingly becoming the only language heard at these conferences, some delegates may struggle to understand or participate in a complicated discussion. The problem has to be carefully weighed against the huge cost of providing interpreters.

Meals are another source of tension. The Spanish hosts of this year's EAN conference were aghast when the organisers decided against serving wine at lunchtime because of fears that delegates would drop off in the afternoon. Wine mysteriously appeared at the meal, which was held at 3pm to the rumbles of many northern European stomachs used to earlier lunches.

Ms Woodrow also recalled an occasion when the hosts of a conference in Lille took delegates ten miles out of the town centre to a civic reception and then forgot to provide lunch.

Then there are problems with variations in wealth between delegates from different countries. Eastern European academics in particular often struggle with the cost of attending conferences, which may decrease their representation.

The gala dinner can be a time when such differences in wealth become apparent, with certain delegates and their spouses sporting elaborate clothing and jewellery.

More often, though, differences in dress are a matter of style. British delegates sometimes shock their fellow Europeans by opting for sandals and T-shirts rather than a suit or jacket.

But all this is of minor importance compared with the opportunity to make lifelong contacts.

Professor Birkett said she had personal experience of conferences' ripple effect, having met one delegate who has since been involved in regular collaborations and introduced her to larger international networks.

"It is not just about getting different ideas and networks but also learning about different ways of working because training and working systems differ so much between countries," she said.

Where to find academics in September


* The Organisation of the Southern European School of the EPS, Faro, Portugal

* Trends in Nanotechnology 2001, Segovia, Spain

* A Relativistic Spacetime Odyssey, Florence, Italy

* Current Geometry 2001, Naples, Italy

* Ninth European Conference on the Spectroscopy of Biological Molecules, Prague, Czech Republic

* Ninth International Conference on the Applications of the Density Functional Theory in Chemistry and Physics, El Escorial, Madrid, Spain

* Second Euroconference in School Format on Vortex Matter in Superconductors, Crete, Greece

* Bose-Einstein Condensation - EuroConference on the physics of atomic gases at low temperatures, Costa Brava, Spain


* 200th Joint International Meeting of the Electrochemical Society, Inc., San Francisco Hilton and Towers, California, n Fourth World Congress on Oxidation Catalysis, Berlin, Germany

* Second International Symposium on Separations in the Biosciences - SBS 2001, CDMS Krystal Hotel, Prague, Czech Republic

* Third Symposium Extech 2001, Resa, Barcelona, Spain

* International Symposium on Microchemistry and Microsystems, Kanagawa Science Park, Kawasaki, Japan

* Third International Symposium on Pharmaceutical Chemistry, The Marmara, Istanbul, Turkey

* Second European Catalysis Symposium, Pisa - Congress Palace, Italy

Social scientists

* Researching the Voluntary Sector "Inspiring Better Practice", Landmark Park Royal Hotel, Sydney

* Defining the Role of Language in Development: fifth International Conference on Language and Development, The Hotel Inter-Continental, Phnom Penh

* International Workshop on Adolescence, Viareggio, Tuscany

* IDA 2001 fourth International Symposium on Intelligent Data Analysis, Lisbon

* Second International Mind of a Child Conference 2001: The Future of our Children's Health, Manly, Sydney

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