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There’s a CBC Radio program called Ideas that’s be around for 40 years (it’s on at 9pm on Radio 1 [9:30 in Newfoundland and parts of Labrador] if you’re interested).  One of the things I look forward to each year is the Massey Lectures, a series of 5 public lectures on a topic.  This year, Lawrence Hill presents “Blood: The Stuff of Life“.  Ideas also airs the Lafontaine-Baldwin Symposium, the Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism, and excerpts from the Munk Debates (which regularly fills Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, and has featured Tony Blair, Christopher Hitchens, and Henry Kissenger among many others).

Why am I talking about a radio show?  Because science (and I’ll talk specifically about ecology) needs more of this:

And so, I will present three suggestions to all those organizers of symposia, workshops, annual meetings, and conferences.

1. Make the formal parts of conferences more interactive

One of the things I really like about he Munk Debates is that there’s an audience poll before and after the debate on the question at hand.  I’ll use the tweet above as an example.  Imagine yourself at a large (>200) ecological meeting where the question was put: what is the fundamental unit of ecology? Attendees vote using clickers at the start of the event, and then Shahid and Joel take the stage, debating back and forth about the relative merits of their approach, the evidence to back it up, etc.  At the end, the audience votes again, and the results show up on the screen.  How cool would that be?

The goal wouldn’t be to resolve the Big Questions in ecology, but to have an engaging discussion of different points of view.  Take the recent back and forth (and back again) on the intermediate disturbance hypothesis that Jeremy Fox at Dynamic Ecology was involved in.  Both sides advocated a view, and in the end, readers will make up their mind.  Likewise, the atmosphere shouldn’t be adversarial, but collegial.

Not only would this serve to highlight the current debates in ecology as a discipline, but I think they would be much more engaging than listening to an hour-long navel-gazing plenary.

Obviously one challenge will be to arrange suitable panelists, but I think the payoff would be well worth it.

Edit: The American Society of Naturalists (publishers of American Naturalist) are doing just this very thing at their meeting on 13 January 2014. Their debate: “This house believes that species richness on continents is dominated by ecological limits” Proponent: Dan Rabosky, and Opponent: Luke Harmon. (ht Raphael Maia)

2. Plenary talks shouldn’t use slides

Most scientific meetings have some form of plenary address, whether this is the MacArthur Lecture at Ecological Society of America meetings, the President’s Award Address at Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, or the Rigler Award Lecture of the Society of Canadian Limnologists.  But what’s the purpose?  Plenary lecturers have a unique opportunity to tell a story, use exposition and other narrative tools to weave the fabric of their message to the rapt audience.  But often, it’s wasted on poorly-designed PowerPoint slides with too much text or blurry tables & figures.

What makes the Lafontaine-Baldwin Lectures, the Masseys, and the like enjoyable is that they tell a story.  There’s no discussion of p-values, Akaike weights, or small text in the bottom corner telling the audience which of the presenter’s papers s/he was talking about.  There’s a story with a narrative arc.

We suck at narrative arcs in science.

In undergrad, I took a few humanities courses where professors lectured (sensu stricto).  That is, they gave a 50-minute lecture with very few aides. There were certainly no powerpoint slides (unless it was to display, for example, a piece of artwork we were discussing).  I recall in particular one class on Canadian Studies, where the professor would, for 3 hours a week, weave a narrative about the development of Quebec’s language laws and cultural distinctiveness, or the development of native art, or the concept the Canadian North as one of our national myths.  I like to think that it’s not just the subject matter – the evolution of birds is pretty compelling stuff, if you ask me.  But it does highlight the differences between what I was expected to retain from my humanities courses (ideas & concepts) compared to my science courses (more fact recall).  Yes, things are improving, and there’s lots of great advice about how to get students into that kind of higher-order learning.  So why do we shy away from it in our research (as manifested in conference presentations)?

3. Plenary talks should be recorded

Giving a plenary talk (or a named lecture, like the MacArthur Lecture) is a great honour.  But unless you happen to be in the audience, too bad, so sad.  It’s now relatively easy to find people who can record the video & audio of plenary addresses to produce YouTube videos, but also audio podcasts.  Would I like to listen to the MacArthur or CSEE President’s Award Lecture? Heck yes.  Even if I were there, I would likely listen to it again.  It could be assigned listening/watching to a class, and made more widely available.

This is especially true if my earlier advice (ditch the slides) is taken, since referring to “this plot here [points to bottom left figure]” doesn’t translate well to audio.  And before nay-sayers cry that audio is dead, consider some of the most popular podcasts – The Reith Lectures, This American Life, Radiolab, and TED Talks are all about using audio or the spoken word to tell stories, and have millions of downloads each week.

I consulted a friend of mine who does audio / video editing, and he quoted me < $500 to take the raw footage and raw audio track, match them up, put in title cards and credits, render & upload the video.  Pairing with a professional (with a partner YouTube account) also means the video can be uploaded in one go (non-partners are limited to 15-minute videos).  In the grand scheme of conference budgets, that’s not a lot to ask.

The bottom line here is that plenary addresses by the best and brightest in the field, and engaging debates over the questions we grapple with as a discipline are fantastic opportunities to increase the communication of science and what we do within the scientific community (and outside it as well).  The 2012 Massey Lectures were by noted physicist Neil Turok, and covered cosmology, the origins of the universe, and quantum physics.  Surely if those can be made accessible, ecology can do the same.