If it's too big it's not so much fun

October 13, 2006

The fewer, the merrier, says Tim Birkhead, who looks forward to exchanging ideas, not posing, at conferences.

The high spot of the academic year is the conference season - that period of late summer when returning undergraduates and the accompanying bureaucracy seem a lifetime away.

Conferences provide the opportunity to meet old friends, exchange ideas and form collaborations, as well as strutting your intellectual stuff and letting the world know what you've been doing.

But conferences can be a mixed blessing. If they are too big, they create a sense of alienation. A colleague told me that he had been to a meeting with no fewer than 12,000 delegates. Never having been to a meeting of more than 1,000 or so, the thought horrified me, since anything more than a few hundred seems slightly unmanageable. Huge conferences are the academic equivalent of mating arenas or leks, in which individuals show off their credentials and hope to score.

For me, the best meetings are small, fewer than 50. If they are in a nice location, so much the better, since a good venue lifts the spirits and facilitates the exchange of ideas. These are the conferences where things really happen, where friendships and collaborations flourish. It is easy to overlook the social aspect of doing research, especially in these assessment-ridden times when selfishness appears to be the order of the day. We rely on our colleagues to challenge our views, to stimulate alternative viewpoints and to form allegiances. Collaboration can inspire research, but we must choose our co-workers carefully; make the wrong choice and someone you thought might be a collaborator can easily become your most ferocious competitor.

It is precisely this that makes the social aspect of conferences so important, especially small gatherings. Watching someone you might like to work with as they interact with students, colleagues and superiors provides the most revealing window on the way they operate. I was recently invited to a French university to visit someone I had never met but with whom I was interested in working. We had a fabulous few days in which we seemed to do little else but eat and drink between the occasional scientific chat. As I departed, I thanked my host for the extraordinary way he had looked after me. Taken aback, he said: " C'est normale ; if we are going to work together we 'ave to know we will get on." I wish it were normal.

As far as I am aware, no one has ever tried to evaluate the effectiveness of different-sized conferences. I'm not quite sure how one would do it, since the benefits are so varied and diffuse, but my guess is that for those genuinely interested in research (rather than mere posturing) small meetings are more useful. It is surprising, therefore, how difficult it is to get money to attend such meetings and even more frustrating how difficult it is to raise funds to organise one. For those philanthropists who want to do something of lasting value for research, there is no better way of using a few grand than to sponsor a meeting. With fewer overheads, small conferences provide outstanding value for money. In contrast, I see the professional organisers hired by big conferences as akin to vets or privatised dentists, who can virtually dictate their own prices.

The value of small conferences in the social structure of science seems to be overlooked. Perhaps it is time for someone to devise a way of scoring their effectiveness and encourage their funding.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behaviour and evolution, Sheffield University. He organises the biennial Biology of Spermatozoa meeting, www.shef.ac.uk/aps/contacts/acadstaff/bos2005.html

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