Last week I was in Norway attending the annual meeting of the RHINESSA study. It is always a pleasure to visit the lovely city of Bergen and catch up with colleagues who have now become friends. This week I am hosting the annual meeting of the Isle of Wight Birth Cohort study group in the New Forest, catching up with colleagues from Southampton and the Isle of Wight, as well as Memphis TN, Lansing MI, and Denver CO in the United States of America.

Small meetings such as these always seem to me to be incredibly productive. Over a few intense days we hear exciting results of analyses undertaken over the past year, discuss the development of new papers, assess our progress on deliverables and milestones on grants, and plan for the future. However, they have also got me thinking about the value of scientific meetings. At the RHINESSA meeting this year for the first time we discussed whether annual meetings such as these can continue be justified in light of the environmental impact that air travel has. (1)

There are a lot of scientific conferences, and attendance, aside from the environmental impact, also takes time. Time that could be spent in the lab, writing papers or new grant applications, or one of the myriad of other tasks that seem to fill an academic’s time (for me it seems to be a surfeit of meetings!). However, in my mind there are things that can be achieved by meeting together, that can never be achieved with electronic means of communication. It is the unstructured time at meetings, the chance encounters with colleagues, the discussion of new ideas, mutual solving of problems and listening to the perspective of others on your area of interest that are so valuable. Meeting in person is the best way for collaborators to become colleagues and friends. This is important, especially in multidisciplinary teams, as it is only when you really know someone and understand their background, experience and motivation, that you can build mutual respect and trust, and this is the basis for a truly successful scientific partnership. I always say that it is not till you have sat down to dinner with someone and had an opportunity to get to know them personally that you can get the most out of a collaboration.

In fact, there has been serious research undertaken as to the value of scientific meetings. For example, Oester et al. (2), analysing data from a survey of attendants at scientific congresses, showed the wide range of perceived benefits of attending meetings in person, and also make useful suggestions about how the environmental impact of meetings can be minimised. Surveys of attendees at Keystone meetings have shown that conferences can actually save time and money by fostering new collaborations and sharing of information, data, and techniques. (3)

In short, scientific meetings matter. These meetings have unique value that cannot be achieved by electronic communication. They are not just vehicles for sharing results with our peers, but are also vital opportunities for networking, brainstorming, and making connections that can lead to new research project, papers and grants, in a way that virtual, online meetings cannot.

Finally, I look forward to welcoming you all to the Southampton Medical and Health Research Conference next week. It’s going to be a great few days listening to PGRs and ECRs across the Faculty of Medicine, the School of Health Sciences, and the University of Southampton to showcasing the wide range of high-quality research they are undertaking. Register here – go on, meet with your colleagues, you know the value of a conference now!

References

1. Biggin A. Scientific bodies must take own action on emissions. Nature. 2007;448:749. 2. Oester S, Cigliano JA, Hind-Ozan EJ, Parsons ECM. Why Conferences Matter—An Illustration from the International Marine Conservation Congress. Frontiers in Marine Science. 2017;4(257). 3. Aiken J. What’s the value of Cnferences? The Scientist (2006). Available from https://www.the-scientist.com/uncategorized/whats-the-value-of-conferences-47563

1. Biggin A. Scientific bodies must take own action on emissions. Nature. 2007;448:749. 2. Oester S, Cigliano JA, Hind-Ozan EJ, Parsons ECM. Why Conferences Matter—An Illustration from the International Marine Conservation Congress. Frontiers in Marine Science. 2017;4(257). 3. Aiken J. What’s the value of Cnferences? The Scientist (2006). Available from https://www.the-scientist.com/uncategorized/whats-the-value-of-conferences-47563

Of colleagues and friends – by Professor John Holloway

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