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Updating the Scientific Conference

Scialog methodology put to work in a global setting Today’s widespread availability of scientific information and new technology for communication has implications for the traditional format of the venerable research conference, long a mainstay of scientific communities, according to RCSA Program Director Richard Wiener. Wiener thinks that with the increasing reach of highly interactive global communication, the conventional method of transferring scientific information through formal talks is becoming less relevant. “We’re already seeing major changes in the classroom, but we have yet to really start rethinking how to make conferences more effective, at least not to the extent researchers are addressing how to make education more interactive and effective,” Wiener said. “And the traditional methodology of hours of formal presentations is likely not the best approach. Certainly there is still value, but taking advantage of some of the new technology to impart information and interweaving more interactive processes may turn out, ultimately, to be much more powerful.” Wiener recently attended the Industrial Physics Forum sponsored by the American Institute of Physics and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics. The event, held in Trieste, Italy, drew about 100 participants from 30 countries. The topic: “Capacity Building for Industrial Physics in Developing and Emerging Economies.” Group Photo “The purpose was to hear about cutting-edge physics, both from academic and industrial researchers, and to think about how we might be able to transfer some of these areas of research, or possibly forge collaborations, to help developing nations do more physics,” Wiener said. Topics included photovoltaics, bioenergy, microfluidics, science policy and physics education. What Wiener brought to the conference was his knowledge of Scialog®, an RCSA program that seeks to accelerate the work of 21st-century transformational science through funding research, intensive dialog and community building. He and four other physicists knowledgeable about Scialog methodology -- Elizabeth F. McCormack, Bryn Mawr College; Sean Shaheen, University of Denver; Rene Lopez, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Philip “Bo” Hammer, AIP -- guided conference participants in a morning-long Scialog experience. Wiener delivered an introductory lecture on the fundamentals of the Scialog process, which centers on a form of facilitated dialog designed to break down traditional barriers to authentic communication, identify bottlenecks to research, and encourage innovation aimed at producing transformative breakthroughs. McCormack, a member of the RCSA Board of Directors, led the multicultural participants in an international discussion circle. Each was asked to come up with one word that came to mind upon hearing the word “communication.” “It was interesting that a number of people from emerging nations said ‘technology’ is what comes to mind when you say ‘communication,’” Wiener recalled. “But what’s also interesting is that most of the people said things quite similar to what people say here in the U.S. at our regular Scialog conferences. They talk about patience and listening and humor and so forth. And it wasn’t just people from developed countries saying that.” Participants were then asked to join discussion groups categorized by the broad physics topics touched upon in the various formal presentations. “People divided up according to their interests,” Wiener said. “People got to go and sit with various speakers, and everyone got an opportunity to talk about what they had learned and how it might be relevant to the overall subject of the conference – capacity building.” The day before, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire about what might be relevant to building physics capacity in their nations, what they had learned so far, and with whom they might collaborate in order to build capacity. “So we encouraged them to think before going into the Scialog process,” Wiener said. “We wanted them to have some idea about what the goal would be and how they might develop an action plan, how they might team up with other people at the conference, and what needs to happen next.” Following the topical discussions, people were encouraged to break out into groups defined by geographic regions. “My sense is that the topical discussions were pretty useful and that people didn’t want to stop having them,” Wiener said. “The regional discussions, on the other hand, seemed to bog down -- people in the less developed regions saying, basically, that capacity is inadequate and that their situations are so dire they’re not sure how it can be increased.” Nevertheless, he noted, multiple small teams formed and seven action plans emerged from these discussions. These collaborations, which include both academic and industrial physicists, stretch from California to Africa, and among several Central African nations, as well as among several Central European nations, Wiener said. In addition, the RCSA program director emerged with useful insights to improve the Scialog process itself. “We recognized a couple of things,” he said. “One, if you’re going to do these breakout groups and discussions, you probably have to weave them throughout an entire conference, and not try to condense it into one session. That’s too condensed; it just makes more sense to break things up. And we also learned that people are very eager to have the opportunity to talk and participate. The traditional conference format -- and most of this conference fit the traditional format -- is one person up there speaking and then taking a couple of questions. Certainly people get a lot out of the talks, but they also tend to get overloaded. That can cause them to tune out. The opportunity to participate and interact counteracts the tendency to tune out, and it certainly enriches scientific conferences.”

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