Could we improve discussion at scientific conferences?
On the 25th and 26th May 2011 the annual Science Communication Conference, organised by the British Science Association (BSA), took place in London. I was lucky to receive one of the BSA’s bursaries for scientists, which enabled me to attend the meeting. After having experienced the format of this conference, I have been thinking about the differences to scientific conferences - it had never even occurred to me that there might be a different way to hold sessions than the one I was used to!
The structure of most life science conferences I have attended in the past followed similar principles. Each day was divided into several themed sessions. In each, one or two invited speakers presented their research, usually for 45 minutes, with a few minutes of questions at the end. The remaining session time was assigned to speakers chosen from submitted abstracts. Each of them had 15-20 minutes to talk about their work, again finishing with a few minutes of discussion.
The advantage of this system is that it allows a large number of researchers to present their results. The big disadvantage however is that only few people can fully concentrate on such a wide variety of presentations for a whole day. Thus “good” slots tend to be the early ones because the listeners’ minds will still be fresh. Speakers who are scheduled before lunch or at the end of a long day know that the ability of the audience to concentrate will inevitably have reached a low at this point.
At the Science Communication Conference, the sessions I attended were structured differently. They were less dense, easier to follow and involved more discussion. A session started with one to three speakers who each gave a 10 to 20 minute presentation, followed by a panel discussion. The session chair took questions from the audience, which were then answered by one or several speakers and often led to discussion between panel members. In one session several questions were taken by the chair and repeated to the speakers, which allowed them to take notes and prepare their answers. With such a format a session is being broken up into pure listening and an interactive discussion, and so appears less intense than a usual scientific session.
At scientific conferences the discussion time can vary immensely and depends heavily on the speaker and the ruthlessness of the session chair. In theory everyone is asked to leave a few minutes for questions at the end of their talk. In reality, some talks overrun their allocated time slot and thus allow only one question or, in the worst case, no discussion at all. Complex questions are often postponed into the coffee or lunch break because they would take up too much time to answer during the session. However, discussions afterwards usually only include a few people, whereas a large part of the audience might have been interested in it and able to contribute ideas or opinions.
I believe that scientific conferences could benefit from a similar format: Instead of lining up a number of speakers, get everyone around a table to form a panel of experts. Allocate short time slots for speakers to present their findings and afterwards provide sufficient time for discussion with questions from the audience, either directed to one speaker or to the whole panel.
In my opinion a structured debate between experts about key questions in their field could be very interesting and beneficial for the whole audience. By allocating a generous time frame for it, its importance would be emphasised and it would 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.
Oxford Brookes University (@anneosterrieder)