The people over at GAIN headquarters asked me if I could write a short piece about the conference for their newsletter. Even though I have been swamped with work (perfect proof being the lack of updates around here), I could not say no to them. If you have read my previous posts on the conference you’ll be aware of how much I enjoyed it and especially how much I appreciate the work of the organizers. However, writing such a special post for the GAIN newsletter proved difficult. It was a different beast and, as you know, I am barely capable of writing a blog post. Anyway, I also include that 500-800 words piece here; a bit milder thanks to their editing (and finally a reason to choose a creative commons license for my stuff; watch out for updates in that respect).
I was looking for a catchy first line, you know, that perfect line that captures the whole piece? Something with ‘Cambridge’, ‘GAIN conference’, preferably ‘September morning’ and maybe even ‘pondering’ and ‘merrily’ in it. Well, that experiment failed and I only have 800 words, so let’s just jump right in (remind you of anything, dear postdoc?). Just to get it out of the way, the conference was excellent. The participating audience was amazing, the schedule was well balanced and the organization appeared flawless. However, it was a conference for Germans and Germans always complain, right? Take me for example. As a mathematician I clearly belonged to the exotic researchers at a conference which, by the looks of it, focused on the life sciences (hardly surprising since 40% of all grant money goes that way). So could I really expect anything? Well, I certainly gained a lot.
The first key was the smooth run right down to the details (like catering, the design of the career fair etc.). It created a relaxed and productive atmosphere which turned an audience into participants. This worked extremely well with the balanced mix of sessions, certainly at its best in the Q&A breakout sessions. No lengthy, prepared statements, just jumping right in — and an audience that was not taken aback but ready to debate. It was, simply put, exciting to be at those sessions.
The lecture-like sessions were fortunately both of high quality and actual interest. For example, you got a solid introduction to the complicated grant structures for the next step as well as the academic system in general — and some of them even tried to ‘just’ extend everybody’s horizon. But the very best thing was that I met a lot of interesting people, so interesting in fact, I do not remember a single boring conversation.
Now that we have the good stuff out of the way, let’s do some German complaining. Even though the breakout sessions with their panels were very good, this sometimes seemed to be despite the panelists not because of them. Even though it was flattering that all the big research organizations sent their presidents who participated in workshops, panels, and were approachable during coffee breaks and socials, they sometimes fell back on evasive ‘politician speak’ during the q&a sessions. In stark contrast to this was the very best session of the conference, the session on “Nachwuchsgruppen” (the unfortunate term). That session was the perfect combination of what made the conference so enjoyable; excellent information on the grant system and peers that have taken the next step but could still relate to their audience. These PIs were open to questions, did not mind thinking on their feet, did not even mind to stand corrected (how shocking!) after arguments were debated; in short, their invaluable insight gave the participants what they were looking for both intellectually and emotionally. If I had one wish, I’d suggest that there should be more sessions like that one.
and the Ugly
There was nothing ugly, of course. But there were some little disappointments, like old-fashioned responses to gender and childcare questions or the lack of foreign researchers from within the German system (only the brilliant lecture by Philip Altbach offered an outsider’s view but stayed outside). Above all, I missed a European perspective. The fact that German funding agencies are restricted to Germany cannot explain the profound lack of a European perspective. This could have been given by the federal politicians (who often seemed in the wrong place) or by German researchers in the EU. With all the talk about brain drain, gain and circulation the one advantage the North-American market will always have over Germany is its size. ‘Getting them home’ should mean Europe, not just Germany. Finally, the recent positive developments in academic funding were excessively stressed by some panelists, once even to deny a discussion of persisting issues. Maybe this short period of improvement solved all problems but it might have been worthwhile to discuss why people nevertheless left Germany.
Juergen Mlynek’s remark during the ‘presidential’ panel was spot on: the biggest problem might be psychological. There are many opportunities to continue a career in or close to academia, more than there ever were, both in number and variety. But reliable information about the actual experience needs to get out there. This sharing of information and personal experience is the main achievement of the conference (with much more beyond that). I’m looking forward to a chance to go again next year.