I am writing this on my way home from attending two scientific conferences. These meetings are critical components of the modern scientific enterprise, and they provide a lot of insights into how science works, so I thought it would be a good idea to briefly explain what they are, why they are valuable, and what they show us about modern science.
Before I go any further, I want to quickly mention that you don’t have to be a scientist to attend these meetings. Anyone is welcome to come. Most scientific organizations have annual conferences, so please find a scientific society that studies something you are interested in and attend one of their meetings. We’d love to have you participate in science with us.
Presenting current research
At the most fundamental level, scientific conferences are a place for scientists to present their current work to the rest of their community, and the bulk of the time at conferences is devoted to talk sessions (usually split into 15 minute slots, where each researcher has 12 minutes to present, ideally leaving three minutes for questions) and poster sessions (where researchers stand beside posters displaying their research and other scientists talk to them and ask questions). Generally (though not always), the research being presented at conferences is from recent or ongoing studies. Many talks include preliminary data or data from studies that aren’t fully completed. Thus, they are a good opportunity to showcase what a lab is doing right now and draw attention to research that hasn’t been published yet.
How many talks are given during a conference depends entirely on the size of the meeting. I’ve been to small conferences that have only a few dozen people, last one day, and have just a single session. These are usually for either regional scientific societies or a very narrow research focus (e.g., research on a single species). Others are huge, with thousands of presenters, several days of talks, and numerous sessions running simultaneously. These usually include researchers on a wider range of topics who come from all over the world to attend.
Regardless of the size and scope, conferences are a great place to draw attention to your current research and keep up with the current research that other labs are conducting. Science is not done in a vacuum, and as a scientist, you have to constantly stay abreast of the current research and update your knowledge as new studies come out. As a result, attending conferences is really important for active scientists.
Maintaining and creating collaborations
Although talks consume the most time at conferences, they aren’t actually the most important component or reason for attending. That honor goes to making and maintaining connections within your field. People often think about scientists as lone mavericks working in isolation, but that simply isn’t how modern science operates. Science is an immensely collaborative process, and the best studies usually involve numerous collaborators from all over the world, each of whom contributes different expertise and skills. So how do you build these collaborative teams? Talking to people at conferences is often the best bet.
This is really the most critical function of conferences. They bring together the majority of researchers in a particular field, thus facilitating collaborations and dialogue. If you take me up on my suggestion that you should attend a conference (which I hope you will), pay attention to the conversations that happen during breaks and over meals. Watch closely, and you will continuously see scientists bouncing ideas off each other, sharing proposals, giving advice, and planning new projects. Sometimes, this is entirely organic. For example, one researcher may see a proposal by another scientist who is doing research that is similar to their own and decide that they should collaborate on a joint project. This happened to me during one of the conferences I just attended. Another scientist presented on a disease ecology system that was similar to mine, and after hearing their talk, I invited them to join me for lunch to discuss a joint project comparing our systems.
In other cases, discussions and meetings may be pre-arranged. For example, two long-term collaborators who live on other sides of the planet will often use meetings as an opportunity to sit down together and discuss the next steps of their joint research.
Finally, meetings are a good place for students to find potential advisers. For example, MS students at conferences are often scouting for PhD advisers, and conferences give them the opportunity to both showcase their own research and talk to potential mentors.
Scientists love to argue
The final thing I want to talk about is a common misconception about science that conferences help to dispel. Many people seem to think that scientists go around constantly agreeing with each other and blindly following the “dogma” of their fields. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists are extremely argumentative and critical, and when we read papers or watch talks, we carefully evaluate the methods and results rather than blindly accepting them. Conferences are a great place to see this on display in real time.
Talks are generally followed by a question session, and it is extremely common for audience members (other scientists) to use that time to try to shoot holes in the presentation they just saw. On multiple occasions I have seen a presentation crash and burn during the question session, sometimes with the presenter being brought to tears as the problems with their research were brought to light.
That method of argumentation is, of course, the rude way to do things. The more polite way, which also happens frequently, is to talk to the present privately later in the conference, ask them additional questions, and point out potential problems they may have missed. Ideally, this exchange will benefit the presenter, because, given that conference presentations often include preliminary results, there may still be time to fix the project before it is too late.
Finally, in addition to directly talking to the presenter, scientists talk among themselves about the presentations. I have been to dozens of conferences, and at some point, during every single one of them, I have found myself sitting around with my colleagues dissecting talks, discussing their pros and cons, and talking about issues we had with the methods and/or data presentation. Pay attention at conferences and you will see this happening constantly.
This brings me to my closing point. If you are someone who questions the value and reliability of science, who ignores studies you don’t like, who thinks that scientists blindly agree with the “dogma” of their fields, who thinks that scientists are engaged in some form of conspiracy, etc. then I strongly encourage you to attend some conferences. Meet scientists. Talk to them. Observe how they think and process information. Listen to the questions that they ask and watch how they respond to talks. Scientists don’t absorb information passively. Rather, we actively consume it and engage with it, and seeing that process in action will change how you view science and scientists.