GAIN conference retrospectively Day 113 Sep 2010
Yesterday, the 10th GAIN conference in Boston ended and, since I attended it, I thought I should try to do some classical, journal-like blogging (at least retrospectively) and report a little on what that was all about (don’t expect me to be Gowers though).
GAIN stands for ‘German academic international network’, strangely enough this is restricted to North America (well, at least they include Canada…). The network is essentially run by three big German research funding agencies DAAD, DFG and Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation, but check out the website for details. The conference is designed to improve networking among German researchers in North America, and almost all attending had a grant of either of the three agencies (in my case, the DFG Forschungsstipendium). Instead of giving you more background (of which I learned during the conference) let me jump right in. As I’m writing retrospectively just following my notes and thoughts, this will not be meticulous.
I must say, having looked at the conference schedule online on Thursday evening, I had extremely low expectations. This was mostly due to the exotic nature of mathematics in this kind of environment – the schedule included lots of interesting topics for people in the life sciences plus some ‘general info’. So walking to the Cambridge Marriott Friday morning, I was pondering how much work I could get done while sitting in endless talks about (for me) irrelevant information. The first impression was then also quite unsurprisingly negative (you get what you expect); in the relatively crowded floor outside the conference rooms, which people shared with a ‘career fair’ of sorts, I maneuvered around many small groups of people from the different life sciences who were busy reconnecting and networking. When I finally found the registration desk (I blindly followed the concierge’s description and had stumbled through the fair instead of right into the registration desk) and got my badge and booklet, I took some time to read through the list of participants. And behold, including me, three mathematicians were on the list (and some computer scientists, to be fair) who I unfortunately failed to meet in person (and the liberal arts had even fewer). Since I had arrived early enough, I went on my first stroll through the career fair. On the one hand, it was an interesting experience since ‘the industry’ was not as present as usual – which made sense since the conference is for PostDocs (and beyond), so only a few big pharmaceutical companies were present and, of course, one consulting company (you can find a complete list at the GAIN homepage, they are transparent as they should). Otherwise, German universities and the big research societies/institutes (MPG, Fraunhofer, Helmholtz) were present. A curious fact was that my two former universities, LMU and FU had teamed up which, I felt, was somewhat funny for completely personal reasons. Additionally, only the TUM was present with their dual career office (of which, more later).
Fascinatingly, the first official get together was lunch. And really, lunch, at tables, with waiters. Which was somewhat awkward since I didn’t know anyone. But it was really a good idea since, well, when you sit with a lot of PostDocs at a table it’s not actually hard to strike up a conversation, in my case a very interesting one. So not only well fed, but also more at ease socially (I’m no PiT [Wayback Machine] but…) I left the lunch table for the-impossible-to-leave out (that’s conferences, not me…) speeches of by ‘politicians’. I can’t reconstruct from my notes what the speeches were about, but they were relatively short and painless – what else can you want? Well, actually, I know remember that one theme bugged me as it often does. All speakers focused on terms like ‘excellence’, ‘leaders in their field’, ‘best of the best’. This bugs me because in all the debates of recent years in Germany, it was all about elitism. What is missing is the large base of very good scientists that have no future and little standing in the academic (and certainly no positions). That base upon is missing from the conversation. And if their is no room for ‘good’ how can we still check that somebody is excellent?
An elegant solution was to have the career fair be within coffee breaks (quite literally) so after all the speeches, not only did I get coffee (hooray), but I had an interesting conversation with the head of the TUM’s dual career office. This is definitely something on my mind and although I’m not yet the correct ‘target’ for them it was interesting to hear that dual career offices are finally establishing themselves as a professional (and impartial) service to attract researchers. I hope I could convey that this is just in time as most academic couples I personally know worry about the lack of such services.
The first break-out session
On the first actual breakout session I cheated myself into the ‘wrong’ conference room – the split was organised by name but I wanted to listen to people that I found more interesting. In Berlin I had once attended a public hearing of the science-committee of the German Bundestag (the federal parliament). The session was a discussion of the experts response on a study on ‘science as a career’ in the German academic system. Mostly, it was about the lack of it, but I had a very positive impression of Helmut Schwarz, the head of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. So I went to the session where he was on the panel. There were no statements, just questions from the audience, which was the general theme of the conference. It was strange however, that the official, lofty topics from the program never came up. Instead, people started right away with quite down-to-earth questions which was much more interesting, but are more difficult to reconstruct now. I do vividly remember one person asking follow up questions quite rigorously and making a beautiful point. He pointed out that the statements essentially told him the following: If you get the prestigious Emmy Noether grant you will, at the end of that funding, be in the following position: you will have been the top of your class at university level to become a PhD candidate, the top of your ‘class’ at PhD level to get a grant to go abroad (which is required for Emmy Noether grants), at the top of your PostDoc ‘class’ when you get the Emmy Noether grant and after that you have a 80% chance of getting some kind of permanent position in the German academic system. Which led to the question: are you really trying to sell that to the smartest students that you want to keep in you research instead of ‘loosing’ them to the industry? They have to be the very best for 15 years just to get a puny permanent position for themselves? The replies to this were unfortunately simple – we should be bloody grateful that we get any grants at all, period.
Btw, my own question in that session was about future plans to improve teaching structurally – I was wondering if there were initiatives (or plans thereof) so that researchers waste less energy (in my experience the larger part of German teaching workload is wasted efforts that could be prevented with a little more structural thinking) while students get better guidance to us researchers, i.e., students have a higher chance to end up in fields they have talent for and we have a better chance of finding those talents. This question also didn’t get an answer (which might have been due to me very nervously blurting it out), but rather bounced off the political professionalism of the panel – it felt a lot like ‘I never cared about that, so why would I think about it?’. This sums up my memory of the session actually, the questions were excellent (in that I could absolutely see where they were coming from) but answered honestly only if the panel members felt their own position were flawless. I had hoped that in such a conference, the big heads were more open to listening and being self critical.
To be continued.