The Value of Conferences

Every few years, the value of scientific conferences comes under debate. Several years ago, the Colorado School of Mines started to require justification for attendance–essentially you needed to be presenting something to warrant your travel.  Recently, the Federal government has placed restrictions on travel to any place where more than 50 attendees from the same government organization will be present.  This was a reaction to the egregious overspending by the General Services Administration (thanks GSA).

Clearly we need to have limits on travel, especially in public service (such as Federal and State employees).  Attending a 1 day conference in Fiji and then taking two weeks leave is a bit of an abuse of the system.  HOWEVER, as my good friend and university professor Dr. Krahenbuhl put it: “Asking a scientist to justify conference attendance is like asking an accountant to justify the purchase of a calculator.”

The medical field is clearly different from other fields (as the author fairly points out), however this article discusses the cons of conference attendance.  It’s true–attending a conference is expensive.  However, I am a strong believer that they pay for themselves.  So here, I’d like to discuss what I see in the value of conferences.

Budget line items: First and foremost, conference attendance is usually a line item in proposals.  If the proposal is approved and funded, I don’t see how any management has the right to prohibit travel.  However, that’s a policy decision, not a scientific one.  I’m labor, not management.

Exchange of ideas:  The entire point of any scientific conference is the free exchange of ideas.  I believe that more of my research ideas have occurred as a DIRECT result of conference attendance.  People present not only their research successes, but also their problems.  By being attentive to those, we can develop new and innovative ideas for solving them.  This might lead to fruitful research, a paper, a collaboration, etc. that would not have happened otherwise.  Moreover, the amount of discussion and brain storming that happens outside of conference hours is invaluable.  We all get stuck in our own research approaches, and often just chatting with a colleague from another institution over coffee or beer can break us out of our ruts, change our paradigms, and expand our idea base.

Personal connections: Research without collaboration goes nowhere.  The best collaborations happen between researchers who know each other well, and have developed personal connections.  It’s nearly impossible to initiate and maintain those connections without attending a large gathering of colleagues from around the world.  I have projects across the country and the world–the only time I see my collaborators in many instances is during these conferences.  Conferences provide a good venue for setting up meetings, which to which we would otherwise need to travel–so in this way it’s actually a cost-savings.

Dissemination of Results: I would estimate that the average time between submitting a journal paper and it actually appearing in print is about a year.  Don’t get me wrong–I fully believe in the need and power of peer-review.  However, that is a long time to wait.  Presenting at conferences provides a medium by which preliminary results and methodology can be presented in a timely manner.  At least in the field of Geophysics, there is still a binary mini-review process to prevent shennanigans.

Research competition: We all compete for funding and we all work in very closely related fields with other scientists.  It is rare that an idea is born that is completely unique.  Conferences provide a way to see what other people are working on.  Depending entirely on journals to see what others are doing can result in potentially years of research duplicated, with one researcher effectively getting ‘scooped’ (yes, this has happened to me, though it was completely innocent and I congratulate Habashy et. al. on their outstanding research).

Sabbatical: For me, conferences act as a mini-sabbatical.  Most universities require their professors to take a sabbatical every so many years to refresh themselves mentally.  It’s the same with conference attendance.  It’s an opportunity to become excited about your research again and remember why you go to work every morning in the first place.  It’s a working vacation with very real benefits.  I personally am extremely productive for several weeks after a conference, banging out research at an astounding rate.

So there you have it, friends.  A bit of musing on the value of conferences.  Please feel free to leave your comments below.

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About faradaysheadache

Research Geophysicist with the US Geological Survey.
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