Why traditional academic conferences are outdated and a look at how they can be done right
by Mia Wroe
In early June, the University of Birmingham and the Lapworth Museum hosted Progressive Palaeontology 2019; an annual conference organised by postgraduate students, for postgraduate students. Myself and a number of other undergraduates within the Earth Sciences department were lucky enough to be able to volunteer at ProgPal2019, giving us our first experience of a conference and the behind-the-scenes workings of what goes into organising one. We got to witness first-hand just how valuable a conference can be to an early career researcher. Progressive Palaeontology, however, does not fit the ‘traditional’ format of an academic conference and many early career researchers are being priced out of the discussion when it comes to major symposia. Conferences are environments where like-minded individuals can exchange ideas and discuss each other’s research, making them a valuable part of any academic career. Not only do they offer a chance to present your own work to your peers and seniors, but they also provide invaluable networking opportunities. The people you meet at conferences often prove to be the most valuable contacts, holding the key to opportunities that might otherwise have been out of your reach. Without the freedom to attend conferences, younger academics are excluded from a world of opportunities, networking, and valuable discussion. Progressive Palaeontology itself is a breath of fresh air in the world of academic conferences. Most large, traditional conferences are international, making them expensive to the point of inaccessibility for the early career researchers who stand to benefit most from them. The Guardian estimated that the cost of attending the 26th International Sustainable Development Research Society Conference would be roughly equal to a month’s pay for the average UK postdoc. But everyone suffers when certain groups are excluded; early career researchers provide new perspectives and ideas, a fresh look at research that might perhaps otherwise stagnate. With the vast majority of ProgPal attendees presenting current work from their PhDs, or even their Master’s projects, no one is excluded from the discussion. Perhaps the most effective ways to ensure everyone can have a seat at the table are to make travel grants available and to cut registration fees. The second day of Progressive Palaeontology ended with a lively auction of various palaeontology-related paraphernalia in order to raise money for travel grants for the 2020 conference (to be held in Leeds). While it may not be possible for every conference to offer free registration, or indeed have energetic bids over paintings of dinosaurs in front of Aston Webb, keeping conferences as cheap as possible for attendees should be something applicable to every academic meeting. Something as simple as publishing plans well in advance can impact travel costs significantly! Thought should also be put into venue choice; having a banquet hall and a golf course on site might be nice, but the cost of hosting a conference in an elaborate hotel versus a university venue are hardly comparable. The 4th World Water Forum, for example, cost more than £160 million to host. High venue costs mean higher registration fees, and much less accessibility for early career researchers. While the Lapworth Museum perhaps cannot fit the 19,000+ attendees of the World Water Forum, there are international universities with the facilities to cope with these “megaconferences.” Progressive Palaeontology is an example of a conference where small ideas were put in place that made a big difference to attendees. The community of early career researchers that came together created a really welcoming atmosphere in which everyone could share and discuss their work. Thank you to everyone who helped to organise Progressive Palaeontology 2019 and allowed myself and the other undergraduates to experience our first conference, and especially to Emma Dunne for helping me with this article.
From Issue 19