Basking in the conference afterglow or swansong?

By Victoria Metcalf 11/09/2014

SCAR_cropConferences are seen as one of the few remaining perks of a scientist’s life. A chance to step away from academia and to travel, even if only out of one’s earthquake ravaged home city.

Sometimes though, as much as they energise and present opportunities to reconnect with the scientific community, conferences can be a harsh reminder of just what fates may await those who choose science.

Part 1: Insight into some of what scientists do

A couple of weeks ago saw me and more than 900 other Antarctic scientists converge on the Auckland CBD to attend the 2014 Scientific Committee on Antarctic Science (SCAR) Open Science Conference (OSC). I was one of a handful of tweeps, who live tweeted the entire conference- thousands of tweets outlining nearly every talk all under #SCAR2014. You can find the Storify of the conference here.

What do scientists do at conferences?

This is the opportunity to present research to our peers, perhaps before it is published in order to gain valuable critique. It’s also a chance to gain recognition and to see how our research fits into the jigsaw puzzle of the body of research presented at this particular meeting. Are we ahead or are we behind in the competitive science game? Do we have something to offer others? Do we see common themes and opportunities emerging that connect and unify our community?

These meetings are typically the ultimate networking opportunity: to spend time with friends who happen to be scientists from around the world and indulge non guiltily in immersive scientific discourse without anyone frustratingly hollering “You are such a scientist!” at one’s verbalisations of geekiness.

Also and more importantly, is the face to face time with existing contacts and collaborators discussing joint research that has been conducted and new ideas for upcoming funding rounds, as well as pacing the conference social spaces seeking out new opportunities for jobs, collaborations etc.

For some of us forward thinking scientists, even the social media connections during talks (e.g. discourse with other attendees and anyone else via tweets) can be important for formulating ideas and building connections. It’s hard to put a value sometimes on just how important overall these opportunities are for science success.

Themes from the Antarctic conference

The SCAR OSC 2014 conference was a fairly typical length conference at just over four days but all up I had eight days of associated workshops and meetings. This is because there is a lot of scientific business done around SCAR meetings.

To step into SCAR is to enter a world overrun by acronyms. They infiltrate talks like a blizzard of letters causing temporary snow blindness.  The structure of how SCAR is organised too is interesting with scientific research programmes, expert groups and action groups on science topics, standing committees and advisory groups- and most of these have meetings or workshops around the SCAR OSC. It can be a baffling world even for those immersed in it.

If one wades through the incomprehensibility of the acronyms, lots of exciting themes emerged out of the conference- most prominent was the just published focus of SCAR activities for the next 20 years: 80 questions under six priority themes arising from the Horizon Scan held earlier this year.

Also featuring throughout was a strong focus on conservation in the Antarctic and its challenges, including marine protected areas (MPAs); links of SCAR activities to international and national policy and politics; the umbrella of climate change research that embraces so much of what we do; the looming threat of ocean acidification; and it was especially heartening to see such a strong push for more and better science communication and public engagement. I’ll write posts about some of these areas over the coming weeks.

The conference ran overlapping with the first global conference on science advice to governments (#SciAdvice14), also in Auckland. Following the live twitter feed for #SciAdvice14 highlighted to me how in many ways the Antarctic science community is ahead of other areas of science. Science on the ice has always had a tight relationship to policy, territory and politics as a news piece during the conference highlighted.

Part 2: The grim depressing reality of science

Energised or saddened? 

As much as it was an inspiring and hype-inducing conference, my attendance lead to highly conflicted feelings. Being there amongst my peers and having to engage in discussions taxed me. Why?

Some 25 weeks ago my university announced broad restructuring through nine separate change proposals, with my permanent academic position one of the many proposed to be disestablished. It was in many ways unexpected, but perhaps not unexpected with my part-time status. I’ve written a little about what impact the announcement had in my other blog,

It’s been a truly horrible year going through what I can only describe as an awful process, stuck in limbo-land for what seems like an eternity. Despite a mass of supportive submissions and what I and many others considered a viable alternative proposal, my position was confirmed as being disestablished at the end of May. But 25 weeks and counting I am still waiting for a firm resolution re my position ending.

It’s set to finally resolve soon I hope, although sadly that may leave me unable to speak further, except on general terms. Such silencing of academics is commonplace. When I leave, just a single female academic about to turn 60 will remain in my department- that’s a staggeringly low percentage of just 5%. Given the ever-rising clamour of the challenges for women in academia (e.g. here and here), we should be very concerned about such statistics.

It’s taken an enormous effort on my behalf to even write this aspect of the post, or any posts in the last few months. In general, living under such demoralising uncertainty for most of this year and whilst still in the main turning up to work has extracted any creative life force or indeed any real productivity out of me like marrow being sucked from a bone.

So I’d like to think it’s understandable that the time seeing my friends and my colleagues at this conference felt both joyous and so incredibly hard. Those who I chose to reveal my situation to mainly didn’t know what to say or what to offer and were often visibly shocked. On one hand it was nice to feel their support, but on the other hand it drained me even more than I was already.

Ossian's Swansong (ca. 1782) by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard
Ossian’s Swansong (ca. 1782) by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard. Source: Wikimedia Commons, file by James Steakley.

The Antarctic scientific community is probably somewhat unusual. Encompassing such a broad span of disciplines it is surprisingly close-knit, in part a result of both common scientific goals (see above), time spent in close proximity in the field, and a unified affliction by the allure and magic of Antarctica. This results in the forging of tight, long-term professional relationships and strong friendships.

The malaise of a career in science

I wasn’t the only scientist present in a state of flux. Other attendees I knew already and some I met for the first time in Auckland were anxiously seeking opportunities at every level.

This isn’t in anyway a criticism of the state of Antarctic science, but rather a reflection of the epidemic that science finds itself in. Scientists being forced or choosing to leave science is a spreading disease, that like the plight of women in science (and highly related to the latter), has been hitting headlines (e.g. herehere and here).

Restructuring is also a contagious malaise, greatly contributing to the workload pressures on those that remain and the increasing squeeze on science jobs. A recent THE article questions just why are university managers so obsessed with change?

It is saddening to think that so many bright and talented scientists may be lost from this very leaky pipeline; from those struggling to secure PhD’s, or postdocs, or first academic position, or more established scientists like myself. These are people who live for science and in particular are truly, madly passionate about the icy continent.

A Nature Careers article suggests that people seeking non-academic jobs (whether by choice or not) are expected to show more, be more to succeed elsewhere- how many hoops are reasonable is worth pondering?

There are so many barriers to a career in science and for women, especially, those barriers can be mountainous in nature. This was for example, the first SCAR conference I have been to for some years due to motherhood, the significant personal and professional impacts of the Christchurch earthquakes and two years of institutional restructuring. Such impediments to attending these vital networking opportunities may lead to a less visible ‘science presence’, limiting opportunities in a number of ways.

Trans-disciplinary skills need to be embraced in science

In particular, those seeking positions that I met were all extremely competent science communicators, skills #SciAdvice14 participants emphasised were vital in a post-normal science world. It left me pondering that our current systems do not recognise the ‘right’ mix of skills modern scientists really need and therefore do not adequately select for those. In fact, in many cases it appears that selecting against trans-disciplinary skill-sets may occur.

I left SCAR2014 knowing that I still have a lot to offer both science and science communication. I’m full of ideas for new research projects with new and established collaborators, as well as novel ways to improve our science communication efforts. If you also think there’s still space for someone like myself in science, then by all means contact me or comment below. Bluntly speaking, I’m not ready for SCACR2014 to be my swansong out of science.

And if you are in need of a scientist, postdoc, or PhD student I know some talented people itching to be given the opportunity to demonstrate their many merits.

If we’re all given the opportunity to make the difference we want to in the world, then that will definitely be worth singing about.

If you’re wondering why this seems like a post within a post, it is because I felt so constrained not to speak out for so long that I felt I could only first write about the reality of science and my situation by couching it under another topic, what scientists do all day. 

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