Monday, March 25, 2013

Socializing physicists?...why not

"Are Physics Conferences A Waste ? An Ethical Issue"



March 25th, 2013

Science 2.0

The number of conferences held every year around the world to present and discuss topics in frontier particle physics is surprisingly large: over a hundred per year. Just look at the following list of conferences scheduled in the last three weeks for a proof (and no, March is not very different from other months).

Now, let me straighten out a thing at the outset: I am fully corresponsible, have lived and thrived in the system for twenty years, and so I am in no position to cast stones; on the contrary, I have benefitted from the chance of going to conferences as much as I could in the past, presenting experimental results over once a year on average.

Also, I need to specify that in a way my behavior is not incoherent: in general I am all in favor of as much exchange of information and discussion of scientific results as possible. However, I am struck by the volume of this activity, which forces me to sit back and ponder: can we justify the amount of human resources spent, the infrastructures and money invested, all the gallons of fuel burnt to bring physicist A to exotic place B, etcetera, with the scientific return that we get out of it ? Cannot physicists find less costly ways to communicate and popularize (yes, because in some measure these conferences have also some outreach and "advertising" potential) their results, in an era of global economic crisis and diminishing funding for basic research ?

The answer is quite easy. Of course we cannot justify this plethora of gatherings and we would have easier, time-effective, and completely free ways to discuss our physics results.

A high-energy physics conference usually lasts one week, involves long-distance travel (not infrequently intercontinental one), requires serious organizational efforts and money expenditures (auditoriums, infrastructure, social events and dinners, conference excursions), and takes the largest share of four to six months of work to a group of 6-10 individuals (physicists and administrative staff) to properly organize. Every physicist attending the conference will typically spend 500-600 dollars of registration fee (which includes dinners and excursions), plus some 500 more for travel, plus some 500-1000 more for lodging. This money is usually spent by the University or research institute the physicist belongs to.

Being lazy I much prefer back-of-the-envelope calculations to weeks of accounting, when I am anyway only looking at the orders of magnitude involved. So taking >100 conferences a year, with 250 participants to each, I estimate a total expense of about 40 million dollars per year. In this rough estimate I may be off by a factor of two, but not by a factor of 5.

Now, in principle 40M$ are not a huge sum - we are talking of the whole community of particle physics in the world after all. But if we consider that 80% of these conferences are a surplus -we could well do with a fifth of them without any real consequence to our science- we must conclude that the conference system wastes money, and raises ethical issues.

[ Other fields of research of course are in similar situations, but I cannot discuss the general picture since I do not know it well enough. I only know that in Medicine, for instance, the cost of the (usually huge) conferences is largely born by farmaceutical companies. So there we are in the realm of business, and the ethical issues are of an entirely different kind. Let's leave them alone here. ]

Pros and Cons

I can hear a number of objections to my blaming the multiplication of HEP conferences. I know them all - I have been on both sides of this argument in the past ! Here are a few:

1 - Conferences are important because they bring together people that do not know each other and who can establish useful connections, exchange ideas, create collaborations.

Answer: that is true, but it is doubtful that the average physicist going to a conference benefits from these possibilities. Mostly I see people working on their laptops and caring more for visiting the surroundings (or skiing, or trekking, or sunbathing) than carefully following every presentation and interacting with their peer as much as possible. When they are giving their talk they receive no questions from the audience. Poster sessions go deserted (many conferences have stopped offering a poster session given the zero interest of the participants in reading them).

2 - Conferences are still important because they give young participants the chance to represent their collaboration, gaining credit in their curricula vitae, the chance to publish a proceedings, and experience with presentation skills.

Answer: That is also true, but there would be no need whatsoever of the section "Talks given at conferences" in the resume of a particle physicist, if we used other metrics to judge a candidate for a post-doctoral position or a professorship application. We seem to have created a situation where we need to give presentations at conferences to get recognition, but the recognition is rather useless since everybody - both the smart and the very dumb - has fat chances to represent their collaboration at a physics conference every once in a while.

A LHC experiment with 3000 members must supply of the order of a thousand speakers per year at physics conferences: since many are senior members who do not care to give talks (they can go to the conference and enjoy the benefits regardless of whether they have something to talk about or not, since they usually are funded anyway), even the dumbest, laziest, and least meriting colleague will get to represent the collaboration every year or two.

In fact, when the members of the conference committee of your experiment have to take a decision on whether to accept your application to give a talk at a conference, they will decide based on your self-declared contribution to the experiment, but they will also need to keep an eye on the number of conferences you have attended to in the past, the total number of talks given to members from your institution, etcetera. In other words, merit is not so important in the decision: much more is e.g. your statement that you need the talk in order to enrich your resume since you are about to apply for a job !

Who is to blame?

Conference committees cannot be blamed for basing their decision on those factors: they have been put there exactly to do that. Can collaboration boards be blamed ? Well, they must establish a mechanism by means of which the requests of conference organizers are met. And conference organizers need lots of presentations, since it does not matter whether everybody knows already of result X already, having browsed the slides or watched the streaming of conference Y already held two weeks ago: X fits the program, so it must be in there.

Are conference organizers to be blamed ? Well, their goal is different: they want to create a product (the conference) which they can boast about with their funding agents. Bringing together a large number of scientists from around the world, possibly making headlines in local newspapers and publicizing their institutes, is a good deliverable for them.  As a matter of fact, in some cases conferences bring a lot of good to the science potential of the whole country.

Any way we turn it, it seems like we are left with Clinton's infamous "because I could" answer. We organize conferences because we can, and we go to conferences (possibly held in exotic places or ski resorts) because we can.

I personally am quite happy of having the chance of going to a conference every once in a while. In fact, I attended to one just two weeks ago, although in that case I did not waste a single gallon of fuel since the conference was at walking distance from my home (and I think I well repaid the eur 500 registration fee that INFN paid for me, since with my 50+ articles in the conference blog I practically produced single-handedly a mini-proceedings in real time); but am already planning to attend to another one (in beautiful Crete) in six months. Regardless of my personal gain, the ethical issue remains: we could make better use of those 35 extra million dollars that get burnt in largely unnecessary high-energy physics conferences.

So, one suggestion to Fernando Ferroni, president of the Italian Institute of Nuclear Physics which pays my (ridiculous, but that's not his fault) salary as well as that of 2000 other researchers and administrative staff, and which -using a budget of less than 270 million euros per year, which has been steadily declining by about 3% or so per year in the last ten or so- funds the participation of italian researchers and the construction of apparata for dozens of physics experiments around the world: in a situation where the INFN budget might this year for the first time close in passive, wouldn't it be a sensible thing to do if we applied some self restraint and reduced by, say, 50% our funding for conferences ? There are some technical issues (there are no "conference funds" in the budget but rather travel funds to experiments etc.) but I believe it could be done...

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