Step into the spotlight

March 23, 2007

Organising a conference can boost your department's reputation as well as its coffers. Olga Wojtas reports

There was a shuffling of feet and lowering of eyes at the Primate Society of Great Britain when the issue of hosting the next international congress came up. But Paul Honess of Oxford University's zoology department felt obliged to volunteer. "We can't keep complaining that it's expensive for our students to travel round the world if we're not prepared to put in the work as a community to make it happen closer to home," he says.

Honess is now chair of the organising committee of the 22nd Congress of the International Primatological Society (IPS), which will take place in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) in 2008 - the first UK congress since 1976. The hard slog of organising a conference is matched by the opportunity to boost a discipline or department's reputation internationally, guaranteeing a showcase for its best work. It also provides invaluable opportunities for young researchers. At many, they will have the chance to present.

Honess reckons that the IPS is likely to be too large to allow that. "But we try to elevate the status of poster presentations, and feeling part of a dynamic community of researchers that attracts the best speakers from around the world can have a tremendous impact on students," he says. The organisers plan to use students as volunteers during the conference, waiving or reducing their attendance fee.

James Garden, regius professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh University, last year organised the seventh World Congress of the International Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary Association, also in the EICC. He believes hosting such an event can give local researchers fresh impetus. "For our own group, it was a tremendous lift to see that we can attract a premier congress to Edinburgh, and it stimulated them to ensure that they had all their science ready for presentation," he says.

It had benefits for other academics and researchers within the university, too. "A lot of our colleagues who are not actually surgeons could come without travelling abroad," Garden says. "It was an opportunity to ask them to present a lecture where we knew they had something very important to say that hadn't necessarily been recognised internationally."

Garden admits that the city of Edinburgh itself was an additional attraction: the EICC is in the heart of the city. And the large number of delegates ensured a tidy profit for the local association. "We reckoned that we would break even if we got 800 delegates," he says. "The congress attracted 1,700. I didn't put it together with the aim of making a lot of money: it was about showing Edinburgh and its surgery in a good light. It gave the local association a lift it could only have dreamed of. It is forever financially viable and can now think out of the box about what it can do in terms of supporting research."

Pulling power

Not all delegates attend conferences for cerebral stimulation. Some come looking for more physical workouts, as Susan Bassnett knows from experience

You have planned the conference for months, obtained your funding and invited key speakers from all over the world. This will be the intellectual event of the decade. Or will it?

There is no accounting for idiots who turn up on the wrong day, lose their notes, take umbrage at the misspelling of their name and moan about everything. But even trickier to deal with are those who use conferences as a means to quite another end than the intellectual and expect you to know this.

There was a distinguished literary theorist who complained that I had not put him in a room with his mistress but housed them separately. So sorry, I said, I had no idea. "But everyone knows about us," he declared and left me to chase around for a double room. There was the woman who flew in, registered, then never showed up at any of the events. A check with the cleaning staff told me her bed had never been slept in. The bush telegraph reported that she was occupying another bed in a nearby university town with another scholar unconnected to the conference. I shopped her to her funding body with a discretely worded letter.

You learn that there is a dynamic to conferences. In they all come on Day One, slightly anxious, despite their fame. By Day Two, things start to change. Once settled in, people will argue with confidence, and they will also have eyed up the talent. If participants are going to room-swap, Day Two is when it happens.

My worst experience was in Austria at a big international event. On the second day I found a note on my seat. "You are beautiful," it said. "I cannot take my eyes off you." The notes continued for another two days, then a man as tall as my armpit presented himself before me, announced he was in love and would I go to Salzburg with him for the weekend. Phone calls and messages went on for a year afterwards. That he was married didn't seem to bother him.

Plan the intellectual, but beware of the seamy side of conference organising. Not all your speakers are there to further their academic careers.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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