Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Why virtual debate is not enough

Bioessays "Rather than attempting a wholesale reform of conference formats by making all question sessions more thorough-going, meeting organisers could pick a few sessions at which particular topics are to be addressed in greater depth, with longer periods for questions, and perhaps even with questioners ‘seeded’ in the audience. Setting up opportunities for stronger questioning could function as a training opportunity, and give younger generations of scientists the experience of more engaged and intensive modes of questioning. Poster sessions often give rise to extensive questions, but these interrogations tend to happen in more restricted exchanges (often dyadic) that are not shared with a larger audience. The same is true for letters between scientists. Our experience from both organising and attending multidisciplinary meetings is that when scientists are given enough time, the right context and the licence to overcome inhibitions, they take advantage by asking extensive and profound questions not unlike those philosophers and historians are trained to ask. Many scientists, senior and junior, relish structured opportunities for not only extended discussions of their own work, but also of others' work. Virtual environments are able to do this too, but on their own will not be enough to break the habits acquired at and reinforced during most standard meetings. Online forums can support communities that are already established because they provide an opportunity to extend existing debates, but virtual engagement is very inefficient for initiating de novo the sorts of creative social interactions that lead to new science being done.
There is, in all of this problem space, a wonderful opportunity for some valuable sociology and history of science, in which meeting behaviours and different sorts of meetings are compared over decades and across disciplines, so that a richer understanding of norms and their instantiation is gained. Sadly, we do not know of anyone doing this work at present. Nevertheless, we see in this discussion an important issue being raised that if reflected on openly and critically, and perhaps even at meetings, can raise awareness of what it means to be a scientist and to do science."

The scientific importance of asking questions at meetings: why virtual debate is not enough. Bioessays. 2011 33(1): 35-37