Backing a meeting of minds

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Posted by Paul Smaglik ( on January 01, 2002 at 12:57:34:

Nature 414, 20/27 December 2001, 3 (2001) Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Backing a meeting of minds


Naturejobs editor

Among countless other things, the events of 11 September made scientists reconsider the importance of travel and conferences. After the crashes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, some meetings were postponed or cancelled and, for a moment, the future of scientific communication looked uncertain. But many scientists soon grew defiant, emphasizing that such setbacks were only temporary.

"Many of my best ideas are germinated by insights that come from face-to-face discussions. I, for one, cannot and will not allow this week's events to change that," John Quackenbush, a faculty member at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, told me shortly afterwards.

Quackenbush's reason was as eloquent as his rallying cry. "We are a community, something that to a large extent transcends boundaries and ideologies," he said. "While we may disagree with each other, I believe that most of us still operate in an atmosphere of mutual respect." Although technological tools help to tie that community together, they don't replace live presentations and the ensuing discussions. In fact, electronic exchanges often prompt people to share their ideas, results and progress in the flesh.

There also seems to be less chance for serendipity in virtual reality. Some of the most vital moments of a conference occur during the buzz after a keynote speech, overheard conversations about proposed initiatives or chance encounters at receptions. And a good conference can leave one with the palpable sense of where a particular field is heading.

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