Ethical aspects of professional conference-going October 8, 2007Posted by dorigo in personal, physics, politics, science, travel.
It is not a mystery that a sizable part of the yearly budget of physics research groups -and those I have had experience of are of course no exception- goes in plane tickets, hotel rooms, car rental companies, restaurants, and per-diem salaries. When I joined the group of CDF experimentalists in Padova 15 years ago, travel expenses and in particular the daily remuneration granted to professors and students alike (there is only a minor difference between the per-diem recognized to the two categories) stroke me as probably excessive, but I rapidly came to terms with the idea that there needed to be a compensation for the hard work of world traveling, and I eventually stopped questioning myself on the ethical aspects of the matter.
A compensation is there, and is sizable. When traveling abroad, the per-diem granted by INFN, the italian funding agency of particle physics, amounts to roughly 160 US dollars per day, plus transportation (plane tickets, transfers to and from the airport, rental car); alternatively, one can have the hotel room refunded as well, with a cut by a third of the per-diem. For a comparison, a PhD student in Italy in 1992 would get in a month a salary equivalent to about five days of per-diem, a professor about 15-20 days. With time, salaries have increased more than the per-diem, and things are looking more reasonable today. After all, when traveling abroad one has more expenses if one wants to lead a reasonable lifestyle.
Research funds have always been managed transparently by INFN as far as I know, with a central commission screening the requests and deciding on the total budget administered to each experiment on a yearly basis, and groups participating in the experiment then dividing the allotment at budget meetings where even students are allowed to attend. And in spite of a few physiological hemorrhages -due to individuals who have mastered the ability of managing to convince their research group that their year-round presence abroad (where the experiment is run) is crucial to the success of the experiment- I have never seen blatant abuses.
However, a few days ago I was thinking over the matter. I was in Bari for a meeting of the kind that really benefits from the physical presence of the attendees: nowadays we do have VRVS as well as other systems for videoconferencing, but some things are just better handled if they are discussed eye to eye. My group had spent about 450$ of INFN funds for my participation at a three hour meeting, but after pondering over the matter I decided it was money well spent. That observation led me to elaborate on what are the most disposable expenses that a typical research group usually withstands.
No, I believe the clearest example of a waste of funds is not the occasional meeting where people discuss sensitive issues around a table. Rather, it is the participation at conferences in fancy locations around the globe. My view on the matter is a bit extreme, but I would like to elaborate on it for a moment before you are allowed to frown.
Conferences are everywhere, anytime. A look at an up-to-date list (valid for high-energy physicists, but you can easily get your own by googling around) should convince you that if you were serious about it you could spend your whole life jumping from one to the next, without even having to change your talk slides except for the date and place on the cover, and without ever longing for some vacation time. And some colleagues do just that- I have come to know a few individuals who spend most of their time that way. It is clearly an attractive occupation: not only does one get both an ego boost by speaking in front of large audiences, and to travel to fancy places, food and bed and private balcony paid for. One also gets to publish a conference proceedings, and thicken one’s curriculum vitae.
[By the way, a hilarious book you should definitely read if you haven’t already is “Small World” by David Lodge, see cover on the right]
Conferences used to be a place where people would get updated on the recent developments on topics close to their field of research, have a chance to interact with colleagues from around the world, and present their own new results. They still fulfil those tasks in the web 2.0 era, but the widespread availability of these new technologies has made large gatherings a rather dispensable, XXth century vintage habit. You can get up-to-date on everything from abomasum to Z particles by just connecting to a few preprint servers; you can listen online to more and more conferences, and watch the video feeds. You do not meet many colleagues, but most of them are boring and unattractive anyway, and those you need to talk to are still a mouse click away on IM or Skype.
Let me be clear about this: I love going to conferences. I try to do it as much as I can. I find it enjoyable, stimulating, relaxing. Three meals a day, plus at least two coffee breaks with all sorts of goodies. I get to blog about the things I hear, and I even have a chance to come back from the trip with some more dollars in my pocket than what I left with. What is best is that conferences are usually organized in fancy places with lots of entertainment potential. Here is a incomplete list of events I attended during the last three years:
- PASCOS 2007 – London, July 2007 (my slides on “Precision Standard Model tests at the Tevatron“are here)
- Outstanding questions in cosmology – London, March 2007
- Quark Confinement and the Hadron Spectrum – Azores, September 2006 (my proceedings here)
- Moriond QCD – La Thuile, March 2005 (my slides on “Standard Model Higgs Searches at the Tevatron“are here)
It would be unfair to add to these the last few instances of the CDF week – a yearly event which is held outside Fermilab: in Paris (2007), Isola d’Elba (2006) (see picture, right) and Barcelona (2005). That is because these collaboration meetings are indeed quite useful for one’s research, especially for those like me who spend too little time on the experimental site.
So, is it immoral to spend INFN funds – ultimately, taxpayers’ money – by attending conferences around the globe, with the sole direct output of representing one’s collaboration and research group for twenty minutes worth of recitation of slides one could just as well post on a web site ? I do not think it is immoral, but it seems dangerously close to it.
Again, I stress the point: I am not above all this. I question the matter because I am among the alleged offenders, and I would like to decide whether I wouldn’t rather be among those who have the right to complain about it. You might have read my rants about immoral behavior of politicians in this blog in the past: well, am I sure I had the right to cast those stones ?
Let us check the typical lines of conduct implemented by my funding agency, the INFN – from which I get a paycheck every month. INFN usually allows its associates to attend only one -or maybe two, if you are cunning enough to fish in different funding pockets- international conferences per year. That might still look excessive given the superfluous nature of these events, but there is another side of the coin: the salary of a INFN research scientist – or even that of a professor, if we compare to other countries – is really, really low. Can we count it as a benefit ? In some way, we can.
I agree, it is a lame excuse. Something cannot be 90% ethical: it is really black or white. Nor can one appeal to the fact that “cosi’ fan tutte” (so do everybody). If everybody’s a bitch, do you sell yourself ? Tough question.
In the end, I think I have to come clean at least in this blog: I find myself guilty. I feel it is a minor sin, and I am in very, very good company of course: basically none of my colleagues would be saved by this measure of judgement. What it means, though, is that I will try to remember it before crying in outrage at the misdemeanor of the next corrupt politician.