Summer conference season is around the corner! I especially encourage people to participate in the upcoming American Genetic Association conference in Durham, NC, on recombination. But that aside, why do we go to conferences?
To see the talks? A little (field dependent). A good talk is sometimes very powerful and exciting, and it can be a great way to see exciting work that may not come to print for another... oops, there's the problem. For another 6 months? It is nice having the "preview", but far from essential. For many (albeit not all) talks in my field, I'll see the print or online publication before the next year's conference, if I haven't already even been asked to review the associated manuscript. Obviously this isn't true across all fields of subfields. Talks also often oversell, since they're not subject to the same sort of peer review. Caveats can be omitted, controls may not even have been done yet, etc. They're exciting on the one hand, but they're not "bankable" on the other the way many publications are.
To present research? Yes, especially for junior scientists but somewhat for all. We need to maximize routes with which we disseminate our results, and we also can all use more practice doing it in public forums. Presenting is a great way to get informal feedback, too, pre-submission: much nicer to have someone tell you that you didn't consider X alternate explanation in a meeting (so you can address it) than to have your manuscript to Science rejected on that basis. Giving a great talk can make a postdoc more competitive, too-- I recall many faculty meetings about job searches where someone said, "I saw her give a talk at X meeting, and it was really great."
For the informal interactions? Yes! This point ties in with the feedback I mentioned above... not only do we get feedback on what we present, but we can talk with colleagues about all sorts of projects and ideas, potentially even forming new collaborations over coffee, meals, or "beverages." Yes, we could do this by phone or e-mail, but this forum provides a more "captive audience" for a long time-period not (or less) distracted by their ongoing college duties, and with tons of other experts around as well who can weigh in. This is, in my opinion, the single biggest advantage of in-person conferences.
For the free goodies from vendors? ABSOLUTELY! But I won't dwell on that one.
If I were to propose two pieces of advice:
1) Let's make as many talks/ posters as possible publicly available. Let presenters opt-in to have their talks videotaped and put on YouTube/ UStream. Submit your posters to F1000 Posters. These are all free. Make it so those who couldn't come to the meeting because of cost, family obligations, or even being environmentally friendly in avoiding needless air travel still able to see the research that was presented. Make it so those attending can see some of the concurrent talks they missed. Obviously, opting-in would be voluntary, but organizers can minimize the barriers to it and encourage it. I know some will decline this option for fear of being "scooped", but some will jump at the chance of more dissemination to their colleagues and the public.
2) Don't do the freshman-dorm thing of walking around with your labmates or buddies for the whole conference!!! If multiple people from a lab are going, don't let them share rooms with each other... force them to room with someone from another university. Similarly, while it's nice to "support" your labmate by going to their talk, I'd personally prefer my lab folks go to the concurrent talks I couldn't attend to tell me what I missed. And most importantly, encourage the shy but excellent junior scientists to go meet other movers-&-shakers in their field, both senior and other junior-- their PIs should facilitate this, but anyone can take the initiative to help.
Happy conferencing this summer, y'all! Comments welcome, as always, even if critical.