23 November 2011

Canadian Science Policy Conference 2011

Last week, in fact, one week ago today, I attended CSPC 2011 (Canadian Science Policy Conference). Before I forget everything that happened, I figure that I should write a short review of the conference - both its networking opportunities and the content.

First, earlier in the week I'd had reservations about going. I had a talk to prepare, revisions to make on an article and of course revisions to my dissertation. I know I'm not the most social of networkers, and when you're an outsider at a conference it can be hard to break into existing peer groups. I figured I should stay home and just head to Ottawa for CSTHA 2011. However, I discovered I couldn't get a refund, so I checked the schedule and came up with a plan of people I wanted to meet (I met none of them). I was determined to get the most out of CSPC.

I showed up Wednesday afternoon and went to the Jenkins panel. I met a medical science student from McGill, a guy from AECL who works with someone I've met from DRDC, and a guy whose approach to networking consisted of sitting down at a table, papering it with business cards and talking about himself. The Jenkins panel itself was a bit of a content disaster, which wasn't surprising given that they threw it together the week before. It was worth being there to hear Celine Bak talk about the clean technology sector of the economy, and the overall role that small and medium enterprises play in research and development.

Perhaps the greatest thing that happened in the Jenkins panel was that I had the seed of an idea for what I should do when I graduate. An idea that preoccupied me over the next few days and caused me to give less than my fullest attention to several speakers.

In the evening keynote, Ian Chubb was entertaining and insightful, Peter MacKinnon was quiet and Remi Quirion inadvertently explained why Quebec's fierce independence is a mixed blessing for education, research and innovation. I met a grad student from Toronto with whom I had several good discussions over the next day and a half; there was also a guy at the table whose approach to networking was cold death stares (hooray! I wasn't the most antisocial person there).

Thursday started off much better on the networking front. I sat down with a new grad / recent government hire. I knew people she didn't; she knew people I didn't. We both wanted to meet people, and we developed an unspoken team approach of introducing one another to various groups or simply inserting ourselves in conversations. It was the most effective networking I've ever done.

Talks on Thursday were of varying quality. Nearly every talk was promotional and followed a consistent format: "here's a problem I identified, here's how I'm trying to profit." Actually, that applies to pretty much everyone at the conference (and every conference ever), except Jay Ingram who was the only one not there to trumpet his own work. Anyway, on Thursday there were interesting sessions on community-building, cultural activities and having a social impact. The various political spin shows were predictably entertaining, but about as useful in moving science policy forward as papering a table with business cards or giving people death stares are as networking strategies.

The most frustrating thing, as an historian of Canadian science and technology, was not being able to hear Gerry Hatch give his acceptance speech to the Hall of Fame induction. I hope Denise Amyot is true to her word of getting that speech for the historical record. It was painful seeing an old man attempting to plow through a very long and personal speech against the backdrop of the overwhelming noise of the reception. The message his family received was that has-beens aren't worth honouring or respecting. It is a sad world in which we live that people are so busy trying to solve their current problems that they can't take 15 minutes to listen to someone who has already faced similar problems, and succeeded.

Friday was worthwhile because of Jay Ingram. He criticized the government for muzzling scientists (a story I blogged about over at the Bubble Chamber a year ago), he explained why he wants to get rid of press releases and the term "science literacy," he covered the essences of communication (in an attention-span deprived world). He was about the only person at the conference whose response to the guiding question of the panel was critical and insightful. He'd been given a theme of science communication, and he'd thought deeply about the issue. He posed questions and said controversial things that got the rest of us thinking. It was rewarding, to say the least.

My suggestion to the organizing committee is simple - put Jay Ingram, Yves Gingras and Chad Gaffield together on a plenary session and let them get to work. You'll get far more new and interesting ideas from the three of them than from the promotional poster sessions that make up most of the CSPC program. To fill the conference schedule bring in the politicians and foreign science advisers, since they provide interesting perspective, and then run workshops/discussions. The best sessions this year were the ones in which the good moderators like Tracy Ross, Graham Carr and Matt Dalzell gave each presenter a couple of minutes to talk and then let the audience and panellists ask and answer questions. In other words, the good moderators ran themed discussions with expert contributors on the panel, and good contributors kept to the time limits.

Overall, CSPC 2011 was personally fulfilling. I renewed acquaintances with people in government and consulting that I've met previously (and introduced them to my networking buddy), I met plenty of new people (thanks networking buddy). I dreamed up a business plan. I was challenged and stimulated by Jay Ingram and a few of the other speakers. Moreover, the content in general was mixed. Most of the talks were comparable to the poster sessions - promotional - which is generally what conference programs are all about.

When I spoke to Yves Gingras at CSTHA 2011 about CSPC 2011 and how it needed more voices like his, he said that CSPC should happen every two years or it runs the risk of not having anything to say. Yves, as always, has a very reasonable point.

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