RTI Fellows Symposium was a two-day event at the University of North Carolina’s Friday Center in Chapel Hill. This was also the first time I saw the Friday Center from within and I was looking at it with the eyes of a conference organizer. It has a Goldilocks quality to it: not so pleasant, intimate and science-themed as Sigma Xi, and not as big, cold and corporate as the Raleigh Convention Center. Just the right size and feel. But expensive as hell – Sigma Xi has been good to us over the years, not sure if we could negotiate a similar deal with Friday…..though we have definitely grown and a 420-seat main conference room at Friday Center looks good.
I could attend only the Monday morning portion of the meeting, but Sabine Vollmer was at the Symposium for the whole thing and wrote two blogs posts about the rest of the program here and here with a lot of details.
There were four broad themes entertained by the symposium: Personalized Medicine, Behavioral Neuroscience of Alcoholism, Global Climate Change and Education Opportunity and Achievement. Each of the themes had its own breakout session later, but Monday morning was reserved for Keynote Speakers, one on each of the four topics, each of interest to me in one way or another.
Let me first dispose of the things I did not like about the conference before I get into things I liked. Over the past few years, most of the conferences I go to are informal, unconference or unconference-like events: from Scifoo in Mountain View, to Science FEST in Trieste, to ConvergeSouth in Greensboro, to our own ScienceOnline meetings. Even the ‘real’ science meeting I like to go to, the SRBR meeting, is very relaxed and informal – shorts-and-Hawaiian-shirt-clad scientists giving funny and entertaining talks about their new findings in my own field, with internal jokes, calling out friends in the audience and occasional hackling joke from the room (OK, OK, I overstate – folks are mostly nice and polite, especially when the talk is given by someone younger, e.g, a properly dressed graduate student, waiting in attentive silence until the end and then asking proper questions afterwards, but still, the general atmosphere is friendly and relaxed).
I realize of course that different conferences require different setup and different levels of formality. Not everything is a Bar Camp. While I was personally uncomfortable wearing my suit-and-tie costume at the IASP meeting, I understood that this was a business meeting in a business venue with businessmen (and a handful of businesswomen) in business attire talking about business. But this one, I think, was a mismatch. All (or almost all) speakers were scientists talking about science. Almost everyone in the audience were scientists. For this kind of meeting, the organization was far too formal. And not just in pomp and ceremony and dress-code. For example, if you look at the abstracts, they don’t really say anything about the topic of the talk – they go in great detail about the speaker, including all the past and present appointments, awards and honorary degrees. This indicates that the organizers were more interested in the power hierarchy (i.e., ‘look at VIPs we managed to get here to talk’) instead of the substance of what they are saying. It felt more like a big corporate show-off than a conference meant for an exchange of ideas.
Then, there was no time designated for Question & Answer periods after the talks. I wanted to ask questions, but there was just no mechanism for doing so. I understand there were panels afterwards, but even those were built strangely – with panelists, after each gave a separate talk, sitting at a table on a podium above the audience, physically looking down at the audience, thus psychologically inhibiting all but the bravest from actually speaking up. I do not know how it went, but I doubt it was a free-wheeling discussion. Then, the talks. Two speakers actually read their talks. Arrrgh! Yawn (and I was FULL of caffeine).
Others were much better. Howard McLeod gave a good, clear introduction into personal genomics and personal medicine, its pros and cons. Robert Jackson from Duke provided a good summary of the current state of science of climate change. Ronald Dahl talked about adolescent brain development (something I am very interested in, both professionally and as a father of two adolescents), especially the lengthening of the period between onset of puberty which arrives earlier and earlier (the timing of which is not matched by an earlier development of other brain functions, including self-control) and the delay of societally approved age for onset of sexual activity (including marriage). Thus the duration of the period during which adolescents are sexually mature (but not entirely emotionally mature) but discouraged from sexual activity is getting longer and longer – which is an obvious problem. Couple that with the tendency of adolescents to be unable to resist, despite personal fear, engaging in risky behaviors, problems like teen alcoholism and traffic accidents are on the rise.
Lunch Keynote Speaker, Ralph Tarter, was the biggest dissapointment. His talk about bridging the Two Cultures and lessons from Hollywood was surprising for its naivete easily detectable by anyone who’s been reading science blogs for more than a year or so (including Framing Wars, response to Sizzle and response to Unscientific America, along with bloggers who routinely write about history of science). It was infused with nostalgia for good old days when scientists and poets drank wine and talked together (ehm, scientists and poets at the time were the one and the same people – that was Victorian era when gentlemen of means could afford to indulge themselves in such pastimes as philosophy, natural history and poetry and meeting their like-minded buddies at the pub). Science today is a very different business, specialized, expensive, profesionalized and rightly so. That’s progress. The worst part was the lunch talk was the last point – a very erroneous analogy between peer-review of grants and movie reviews. First error: grants are reviewed before they are funded – movies are reviewed after they are funded. Second, as much as the grant review is prone to error, it is still done by well-meaning teams of scientists who are at least trying to evaluate the proposals according to their merits. Yes, outlandish proposals have a harder time than bandwagon stuff or conservative approaches, but it is at least attempted to be done fairly. Which movie gets funded is totally up to whims of movie moguls and producers. I bet even smaller percentage of submitted movie scripts gets actually made into movies than a proportion of grant proposals that gets funded. And while grant reviewers may look at the past publishing records of the grant submitters, the movie magnates are not in any way swayed by the statistics of positive or negative views of particular actors by movie critics in the media.
The highlight of the day was the talk by James Evans. I know Jim well, but I have never seen him speak before. And he blew me away. He knew that all the other speakers on the Personalized Medicine topics will be over-optimistic, so he took it on himself to provide a counter-view, a summary of cautionary notes backed up by data and a nice dose of humor. It was a very energetic and fun talk that explained very clearly what claims by personal genomics companies really mean, why they are so seductive if you don’t stop to think about them, and how they stack up against reality.