Let’s build networks of science-friends!

Conference fatigue. I’m realizing that conferences are not really working for me at the moment. In spite of heroic efforts from conference organizers, super-star speakers, etc. When experienced through the screen in my spare bedroom, it’s all turning into a uniform, gray blur. And I generally don’t enjoy giving talks into a matrix of empty, muted windows.

There is a deeper problem: But who cares about privileged old Sune? It has been argued – and I strongly agree – that the key victims of conferences moving online are the young researchers. The PhD and PostDoc level.

By not attending in person, the young researchers are robbed of ways of building networks of “science friends”. Other young researchers in other labs and countries that they’ll need as their careers progress. (To this day, many of my best science-friends are people I met at NetSci conferences during the aughts).

And this is also a loss for Science more generally. What will our fields look like as these networks are no longer allowed to grow.

Restoring network-building for young researchers in the age of COVID-19 lockdowns. So maybe we should work to set up structure to run talks/conferences in a way that favors the young researchers. Let’s build networks of science-friends!

I’ve thought about this for a while. And gotten good ideas from the actual young researchers in my group. Here’s the general idea:

  • For increased engagement, we need to shift the focus to discussions rather than talks. So we need small groups.
  • I would still make it about presenting papers. But we need to do it in a way where people don’t just surf the internet during talks. For that we need small groups. And lots of discussion afterwards.
  • It’s about letting friendships grow. For that we need small groups. And lots of discussion.
  • Conferences are also about “being seen” by senior researchers in the field, so maybe we should put one senior person in each little group.

The nitty gritty: To make this concrete, I would

  1. Start by collecting a long list of interested young researchers.
  2. Get research keywords from everyone.
  3. Group people into small groups of 8, with groups based on shared interests, but forming links across labs, institutions, and countries
  4. Groups could meet weekly for 1-2 hours.
  5. At each meeting there would be 2 short talks, then discussion.

After 4 weeks, the group would be done. And we could do multiple runs to foster more connections. Build more possibilities for friendships. So everyone would have a crew to have dinner with once the real conferences resume. (How I miss those!).

Looping in the seniors: But wait a minute!!!

Another important aspect of conferences (from the perspective of young researchers) is to meet famous people from their field. To see those authors of great papers in person.

Thus, to supplement, we could also gather a list of senior researchers, who would volunteer to sit in on the talks, provide a bit of initial feedback and get the discussion started.

The oldies should rotate every week so that the young people would have a chance to hear from the max number of different senior people.

Improving: Let me know what you think! If people like this idea, maybe we should get something like this going? I’m especially interested to know.

  • Do you have any ideas for improvements of this format?
  • If you’re a young researcher, does this sound interesting to you?
  • If you’re a senior researcher would you be up for joining as a mentor?

(Thanks to the researchers in my group for feedback on an early version of this post)