Public communication of science and technology conference 2012, tell it like it is!

You would think at the biggest biennial international conference for science communicators you would see a formidable display of scintillating presentations, amazing speakers, intriguing and thought provoking panel discussions and Pulitzer prize winning posters but sadly that was not the case. It was my first Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) conference; I have had my fair share of conferences and I know they can be a bit hit and miss but this one fell very very far from the target. Why? Where my expectation high?

The theme was Quality, Honesty and Beauty, I knew to expect well…a few “flowery” presentations but also some “Quality” presentations however the theme did suit the venue of the conference Florence, Italy – what a romantic medieval city! Secondly, the run up to the conference was plagued by several abstract rejections which normally is an indication that only the best of the best made it through. Thirdly, it was a conference for science communicators, communicating well is what we do!

My intentions for going to the conference were to seek out potential collaborators, examiners and or advisors. My area of research is science and culture and film, an odd combination but I was hoping to find people with interest or experience in either. I was surprised that there was a paltry number of science film makers. Efforts to find potential collaborators were made extremely difficult by the absence of a delegates list. There were over 650 delegates, I am sure at least one would have been a useful contact but I shall never know.

By day 2 which guess what…was the last day! Very sneakily the conference was a two day conference…I pity those who travelled so far (like me). 18-20th April, that’s more like 18.9th day to 20th because all that happened on the 18th April was a late afternoon registration and a few key note presentations by people who only spoke about themselves like Giovanni Bignami who showed himself off with National Geographic videos where he was presenting. Semir Zeki’s measurement of beauty using brain scans was interesting but he framed it as response to critiques on his methods. The presentation was directed to his adversaries and not the audience that was actually there.

So A LOT was crammed in the actual two days, 12 parallel sessions, yes I said 12, more than 11 and less than 13.  You couldn’t exactly switch in the midst of a parallel session, so you chose one and stuck with it for the whole 1 hour and 15 minutes even though only one of the four presentations interested you.

I spent a lot of time choosing my parallel sessions, but my strategy of trying to pick the one’s which were most useful failed and on Day 2, I went for the ones that looked interesting and had speakers that I knew were engaging.  I wont even mention the 5 hour afternoon with no coffee break on Day 2 or my butt cramp from sitting on the floor in a packed parallel session. And where was the entertainment during the ball? Beautiful palace with cold food and no entertainment… I know Italians to be excellent hosts so what happened?

Presenters and commentators often wanted to make it clear if they were scientist, science communicators or social scientists and it was obvious we did not all speak the same language.

Besides my movie screening, there were probably only five or so presentations from or about Africa. It got heated though, at least for me during a presentation on PCST surveys in South Africa. Eurocentric PCST surveys are the worst measurement  of “scientific literacy” in Africa but I will leave that for another blog post. As for my  movie screening at the conference well….well…well… as my supervisor put it….one of the worst conference chairing she has seen.

Fine, I have complained enough but there was some really truly awesome stuff. One being Florence, what an amazing historic city of paved narrow alleys, enchanting street markets, delightful cafes and breath taking art!

There were some good speakers Felice Frankel who spoke on visual metaphors and IIaria Capua who spoke about open science and bird flu.  And of course our own Miriam Sullivan who truly captured the attention of science communicators with her great performance on science and tv.

The day of the registration, in the morning, there was a PhD student meeting. They tried to present it in such a way … “Hey we would like your ideas on whether a PhD student network is a useful thing and how would it best work for you and PCST”  but it came off more like… “We know its a good thing to have this network, we already have our opinions on how it will work but we just need to tick the consultation box.”

I think there was some missed opportunities for interaction between PhD students but maybe the next PCST…oops…I should have graduated by then. Which was one of the things that came up…..PCST meets biennial as a PhD candidate, you may only attend one or two  meetings.

The idea of a PhD student network is great but very ambitious. Rather than making it exclusive to PhD students, a central PCST Research network committee with a paid secretariat would be more efficient otherwise it’s a lot to expect from already busy PhD students to manage a network.

I think most of all for me I got a chance to catch up with some old friends and plan some projects (not related to my research) for the future. I met old friends from South Africa and England, including the lady who was the first ever science communicator, I  met her in 2008 in South Africa. She was instrumental in showing me the Science communication light.

With some of my colleagues, we planned our take over of the world with science communication, science cafes and brilliant insightful papers on science communication in Africa! I also made new friends and heard new ideas like Eric Jensen and Emily Dawson’s notion that science communication evaluation is under theorized and that makes it difficult to share findings.

All in all, I learnt a lot from the good and the bad so  I am looking  forward to PCST in Brazil in 2014!