Images: Twitter conversation with Tamara Kelly, @TLJKelly, reproduced with her permission; meeting logos, fair use for critical commentary.
Warning: I’ve got my curmudgeon hat on today.
I just registered for the 2016 International Congress of Entomology, which brought to mind a recent Twitter conversation (pictured above). Tamara Kelly was wondering why this teaching-and-learning conference had a theme, and suggested that “You’d never see a scientific conference with a ‘fit the research you’ve been stressing over for 2 years into this artificial theme’”. Well, it must be Somebody’s Law that as soon as you say “never” on the internet, someone calls you on it, and I’m afraid I was That Guy. 2016 ICE is themed “Entomology Without Borders”. In fact, almost every conference I go to has a theme, and I’ve never understood why.
Of course, conferences aren’t infinitely broad. It shouldn’t be a surprise if the International Congress of Entomology is mostly about entomology! And nobody is surprised either by more narrowly focused meetings, like the Gordon Conference on Speciation I attended last year. My puzzlement really has to do with themes for annual meetings of scientific societies. Take the Ecological Society of America – here are a few years’ worth of conference themes:
- 2016: Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene
- 2015: Ecological Science at the Frontier
- 2014: From Oceans to Mountains: it’s all Ecology
- 2013: Sustainable Pathways: Learning From the Past and Shaping the Future
- 2012: Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing, and Sustaining our Ecosystems
Why? It seems to me there are two ways a theme can go. Either it can be so mushily broad as to exclude nobody and nothing (ESA 2014), or it can actually mean something but then exclude a good fraction of conference-goers (ESA 2016). What’s accomplished by either? I don’t think anything is. The Society of the Study of Evolution seems go every year with the implicit theme “This Year’s Bunch of Cool Stuff about Evolution”, and it’s a great conference.
As a grad student and postdoc, I worried about this. I’d see a conference I wanted to attend, notice it had a theme unrelated to my own research, and decide that I’d be unwelcome, or at best ignored. That concern seems silly to me now, but really, what other message was I supposed to take? If you go to the trouble of saying something – indeed, trumpeting it in a big banner across your website* and putting it right in your meeting’s logo – surely it’s reasonable for me to think that you mean something by it?
Well, no. I realize now what message I’m supposed to take from the conference theme: none at all. Once the conference theme has been picked and worked into that lovely conference logo, I’m supposed to ignore it. And so I do, and I think everyone else does too**. I haven’t tried this, but I bet if I polled people in the hallways at my next conference, no more than a tiny fraction could even tell me what the conference’s theme was (at least, without a surreptitious glance at their souvenir tote-bag).
So either a conference theme is meaningless, in which case we don’t need it; or it means something but we all ignore it, or it means something and we label some folks’ science as not fitting in. Each of these options is absurd. Science doesn’t work by us picking a new theme for our research each year – and thank goodness, because we’d never get anywhere. So can we just stop pretending to theme our conferences?
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) February 22, 2016
*^Except of course that for my first conferences, there weren’t web sites. There wasn’t a web for them to have sites on. I am so old.
**^Much to my surprise, Tamara pointed out that her conference actually uses fit to the conference theme as one factor in evaluating abstracts for inclusion. So perhaps people attending that conference have to pay a little attention to the theme. Although if it was me, I’d probably ignore it even more, just out of pig-headedness.