The week of #CLIMATEES2015

CLIMATEES2015

This week around 100 climate scientists, meteorologists, oceanographers and modellers descended on Tortosa for CLIMATE-ES 2015, an International Symposium (capslock intended) about climate change research across the Iberian Peninsula.

It was the first time that such a meeting had been held in Spain (I think): an assembly that included researchers, meteorological organisations and government agencies. Although the symposium was international, 95% of attendees were Spanish. For me, it felt a bit like a meeting of the national meteorological society, like the AMOS conference in Australia.

Most of my colleagues and I were drafted to the local organising committee, and have spent the last month or more navigating all of the administration that is required to run a conference. In the end, it went quite well. Tortosa put on some amazing weather, everyone seemed to be talking to each other, and the morning and afternoon teas were delicious. All signs of a good event!

The only real drawback for me as a foreigner was that I really felt like one. The official languages of the symposium were English and Spanish, but 75% of the talks were in Spanish, with English slides.

I can’t decide how to feel about this. On one hand, the symposium was about Spain and the surrounding region. Why wouldn’t you talk about your country in your language? But on the other hand, surely it is good practice, particularly for the younger scientists, to present in English for future international conferences and workshops. In the end I felt a mixture of vague annoyance and shame for not knowing more Spanish already.

There were slides in English though, and generally the presenters had prepared well-structured talks with clear images and enough text on each screen for me to figure out what was going on. The presentations that I did understand were interesting and rewarding, and made me very excited to be working in a country with such a strong climate science community. There were even sessions dedicated to science communication and providing climate information to the wider community, both important topics that definitely need more air time among scientists.

But I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t pay attention to many presentations at all. Why? I think there are two main reasons.

1) Inspir-straction.

I suffer from this affliction during every conference I attend – inspiration that leads to distraction. Something about sitting in a room with someone talking at me, being surrounded by my peers and realising that I am part of a wider scientific community is very inspiring to me. So inspiring that I want to do things! Research the scientist that is currently presenting, understand an atmospheric process I’ve forgotten about, learn how to draw that great-looking plot, finish that work I’ve been meaning to do, look up that recipe for slow-cooked lamb I’ve always wanted to try, find the best way to travel to Paris from here, balance my bank accounts, check my email and, oh no, the talk’s over and my brain is a million miles away. I know this is horrible behaviour, but with my mobile phone or laptop at hand, I find it almost impossible to stop!

Why did I have Google at my fingertips the whole time? That brings me to my second reason for not paying attention…

2) I was tweeting!

Completely and utterly distracted by the world of the little blue bird. Having a Twitter presence is now standard for a conference, but how can people fully appreciate talks and tweet so frequently? You can see the #CLIMATEES2015 conversation Storified here. Perhaps if everything was in English I would have done a better job of taking things in and converting them into 140 pithy characters, but probably not much better.

Hopefully this will not be the only scientific meeting I attend while in Europe, and so I need to improve my conference manners before then! Any suggestions on how to tweet and learn, or beat inspir-straction? Surely I’m not the only one…

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5 thoughts on “The week of #CLIMATEES2015

  1. I could understand every talk and I also often disconnected. It’s normal, our brains are not made to listen 8 hours straight of talks. We are wanderers, not robots. Each time I go to a conference I think that we could do it better. There should be more conversations and less talks. I know that this is easier said than done, but something should be done, otherwise we all disconnect. I’m sure someday someone will discover a new format that will improve the usefulness of scientific conferences. I think that the most important part of a conference is lunch and dinner. That’s where you can make the good contacts and where you can really discuss sicence.

    Concerning language, I also doubted about doing it in English or in Spanish. I prepared the slides in English in case of. Once there I realised that this conference was international in name. In fact, it was an Iberian conference and thus Spanish was the language best adapted to communicate with that audience. Portuguese people can easily understand academic Spanish (the opposite is also true). So, I chose to present in Spanish. In fact, it would have been good fun to present in Catalan, I think that speakers of latin languages should learn to pasively understand other latin languages. In fact, I think I present well in English, but I’m a much better communicator in Catalan or Spanish. That’s the case for almost all atendees. Thus, if everybody had presented in English, the mean quality of the talks would have been lower. Furthermore, I also think it is important to communicate science in languages other than English when the audience is from an specific place. This is good for our cultures. English monoculture is not good for the world’s cultural diversity. There is no lack of scientific events in English. It is true that this had negative effects: you couldn’t understand most of the presentations, but I guess that, overall, it was good for Spanish science to communicate in Spanish in this conference. 

    Of course, this is a tradeoff. There is no perfect solution in a complex world.

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    • By the way, in Catalonia this dabate is even more complex, because we have our own language, which has been forbiden for many years. Thus, we have had to work hard to normalise its use. After such an effort it is difficult to switch to English in events such as the CLIMATE ES conference. That, somehow, would undermine all the efforts done.

      Finding the right spot between efficiency in communication and preservation of cultural diversity is a very difficult matter.

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  2. Thanks for your comments Pere, it’s great to learn more about the experience of others at the Symposium. I agree with you–the conference format is tired and I feel that it rarely brings out the best in the scientist or their research.

    But what can we do instead? The ‘lightning lecture’ method is fun I think, where people have a couple of minutes and one slide to promote their work and then people can chat with them afterwards. EGU use the PICO method too (http://www.egu2015.eu/pico.html), a similar idea. But that also means that you have to know a bit about the field to engage with the researcher. It would be hard for an oceanographer to be exposed to methods and ideas from a homogeniser for example. One positive aspect of last week’s Symposium was that scientists from different fields were introduced to each other’s work, promoting cross-collaboration.

    As for the language, your insights have given me a lot to think about. It is a shame really that English has become the dominant language of international science, making it that much harder for so many fantastic scientists from non-English language countries to communicate their work. And definitely the language of communication should match the audience and event. In this case I agree: the Symposium was on Iberian climate research, and so it was more appropriate (and as you say, better for the quality of presentation) for the research to be presented in Spanish. There is still so much for me to learn about the history and debate of Catalan that I do not feel qualified to comment, but look forward to understanding more and more the longer we are here.

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    • I agree with you. The conference format is not good, but there is no clear alternative. That’s why we are stuck with it. PICO conferences are interesting too. I guess that the solution is a mix between traditional and newer formats.

      Concerning English, it is not a shame that it has become a dominant language. It is in fact very useful to have a language we all can use to understand each other (though a more neutral language, such as Esperanto would be better, but this is quite utopic). The problem is not in having a language for common use, the problem is the overuse of a powerful language when the use of a less powerful language would suffice. The difficulty lies in knowing when we are using English and when we are overusing it.

      Concerning Catalan, the more you will know, the less you will understand, because this is a complex issue. In fact, the less you understand the more you are thinking about the nuances of the problem. In fact, the problem gets worse when people think that the solution is simple, when it is not.

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  3. Hi Linden! Love your blog (and tweets) and comments on your life here in Tortosa, and I assume we’ll meet each other in person soon – Tortosa is small and everyone bumps into everyone soon enough 😉
    Regarding this post, I am no scientist, having given up on that when I left university but I have attended many lectures/talks/conventions etc “thanks to” my involvement in the river Ebro conservation campaign… I agree, it’s hard to concentrate for too long, but as people have said on Twitter, perhaps tweeting can help this – as long as you don’t overdo it, tweeting the main points can help you focus I find. What I found surprising about the climate conference, though, was the fact that there wasn’t an “official” twitter feed from the organization, for anyone interested who couldn’t make it. In fact, you were responsible for at least 50% of all the tweeting going on I think!
    What does bother me, I must admit, are powerpoint/slide presentations – I find it difficult to pay attention to what is being said when there are amazing visual slides coming at me. And boring when the speaker is merely paraphrasing the texts written on the slides. It’s my pet hate!
    Hope to see you around town soon 🙂
    Brian

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