Are Conferences Worthwhile?

In our age of global interconnectivity, is it still valuable to organise and attend scientific conferences? While international conferences each sap >$100k out of the research funding kitty, they foster a vital skill that can’t be quantified in any currency.

Essay by Jordan Pennells

The very essence of scientific advancement is based on the progression of knowledge by standing on the shoulders of giants; we build upon pre-existing knowledge to further the collective scientific community. To facilitate this process, especially important prior to the current age of global interconnectivity, was to formally congregate in one specific location to share the scientific work of many.

While the need to meet in the flesh is no longer as imperative, this practise remains, if not becoming more prevalent and fragmented into smaller scientific communities. In fact, there were at least 24 international scientific conferences in Australia in 2016, and 437 worldwide. A ball park figure for the operational costs of these conferences, accounting for guest registration, venue hire, catering and marketing expenses (all of which ultimately come out of the research funding kitty – not including flight, accommodation and miscellaneous costs forked out by the individual) is approximately AUD$100,000 per conference. That results in conference costs of around $2.4M to $43.7M for Australian and international conferences in 2016, respectively. Even with the steep costs associated with running and attending conferences, it is difficult to argue for their abolishment.

While others will say that conferences provide benefits of networking opportunities, critical scientific analysis and developing effective science communication, I’m here to present an alternative but more impactful benefit; the art of cross-disciplinary innovation. Cross-disciplinary skills involve the ability to think of the broad concepts, ramifications and opportunities of research across multiple fields.

I propose that “technomimetics”, currently defined in the field of supramolecular chemistry as synthetic molecular systems made to mimic the action of mechanical devices, such as motors, gears or tweezers, should be extended to cover innovations built upon technological discoveries from other fields. The most notable example of this phenomenon is next generation sequencing of the human genome. Through mimicking the miniaturisation of transistors that enabled the fabrication of high performance computer chips, the miniaturisation of many densely packed DNA probes on a biochip set in motion the development of high throughput gene reading devices.

Similarly, a discovery in the field of microbial immunology in 2013 gave rise to the most significant genetic technology of the decade; the genome editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR was realised through the insight of researchers to adapt immunological concepts between bacteria and bacterial viruses into a human-compatible gene editing tool. Without the merging of microbiology and biomedicine, or computer science and genetics, these major innovations would not be possible.

While the organisation of conferences results in a sizeable chunk taking out of the funding kitty, it is a necessary investment to foster interdisciplinary skills that will ultimately provide groundbreaking scientific advancements. A compromise in this situation is to decrease the number of conferences taking place each year, resulting in larger, aggregated conferences that reduce their overall operation cost and facilitate the development of inter-disciplinary skills for scientists. Being able to visualise academic cross-over, standing on the shoulder of giant innovations in other fields, makes accessible incredible technological breakthroughs.

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