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Ethical aspects of professional conference-going October 8, 2007

Posted 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:

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.


1. Anonymous - October 8, 2007

It’s an important issue, and indeed a problem, not just in physics, but in basically all the sciences (& the social sciences as well).

This is one of those things that shows that ethicality is IMHO not always black or white, contrary to your posting — this is a gray area (in a variety of light to medium shades).

I typically cut the maximum per diem in half (reimburse transportation & hotel, + 1/2 maximum other expenses). That’s a good way to assuage one’s guilt. One doesn’t need to take the full amount, just ask the secretary for what you feel is fair and appropriate.

2. dorigo - October 8, 2007

Hi anon,

your practice is interesting, in that it can be applied to INFN travel refund requests as well – I assume you are not italian, otherwise you wouldn’t have dreamt it 🙂
I am joking to some extent of course. I remember one year (I think it was 2003) when after six months our CDF group had spent almost all our money for several reasons: we did cut our per diem in half in order to assure we would be able to take care of our responsibilities during the following six months. That was a tough decision, because half per-diem is barely enough to get even with one’s expenses in the US.

Anyway, ethicality may be pictured with whatever color, because different people see it with different eyes. But to any given individual, there are things that are right and things that look wrong and smell bad, even if they are advantageous: those are to be avoided. Your practice of cutting max refunds by half is ok for you (it would fit my moral standards too), but would be still be insufficient to a few and totally nuts to most others.


3. dorigo - October 8, 2007

“That was a tough decision, because half per-diem is barely enough to get even with one’s expenses in the US”:

Just to be specific of why it was not a no-brainer: of course the reduction was fair for those with a salary, but bear in mind that often our graduate students in Italy plan their survival based on the foreseen amount of money they are likely to earn by two or three months of per diem.


4.   Ethical aspects of professional conference-going by medTRIALS.info - October 9, 2007

[…] plane tickets, hotel rooms, car rental companies, restaurants, and per-diem …Original post by dorigo delivered by Medtrials and […]

5. Karl - October 9, 2007

I think part of the problem is that your black-and-whiteness has to be applied case by case. You start to go in that direction with your post: some conferences just end up being more productive than others. I think it is valid to claim that new and interesting locations and environments often lead to fresh thinking, so I don’t denounce exotic destinations. The large conference is a bit more questionable than something more focused, but even then it depends on how it’s organized and the availability of special interest tracks. I’ve been to very large gatherings in my field (computing) that were extremely useful to me, and some others that were basically an all expenses paid vacation; I’m not sure I could have predicted the outcomes beforehand, either. Much of the benefits from those useful large gatherings were indirect: lots of talk and scrawling on napkins in the bar after hours, with people I would not have met otherwise.

This is not to say that one should not spend wisely. I’ve always tried to minimize travel costs when going to these things.

6. Modeling » Ethical aspects of professional conference-going - October 9, 2007

[…] tigtog wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptWhen 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); … […]

7. Ethical aspects of professional conference-going - October 9, 2007

[…] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt […]

8. CSProf - October 9, 2007

Are you serious? You consider going to conferences unethical? Or only being reimbursed above your expenses unethical? If it’s the former, I don’t consider this a serious ethical objection — the answer why is to be found in your own post.

If it’s the latter, there’s a relatively easy personal and a less easy institutional “fix”: Get reimbursed for your expenses only. Keep receipts of meals, necessary business related telephone calls, taxis, etc, add them up, and only ask for the appropriate reimbursement. I’ve done that when research funding in my group is tight. Institutionally, this is harder because it burdens the administrators with compiling loads of receipts etc. But, it’s what is used by the US universities where I’ve been employed/a student — the per diem thing is not at all prevalent in private universities (at least).

9. Chase - October 9, 2007

I have been thinking about this kind of thing lately after having attended a “resort location” conference recently. I did OK managing expenses, but the conference cost was still significant. The options to save on the hotel, for example, were quite limited (short of hitchiking in every morning from a cheaper area!). Talking to others gave me the impression that some people could not attend, in fact, because it would have eaten up so much of their yearly travel budget.

I should say, the conference was very good, better than average even. But it could have accomplished its scientific goals just as well without the scenic backdrop and I hate the idea that some people couldn’t come because of the cost.

The conference organizers should consider the availability of inexpensive accommodations when planning these meetings, even if that means choosing a boring location. I guess they felt the value of the meeting was increased by having more of the top people there, and people were more likely to come to a nice spot. I don’t like that it’s that way, though. I agree with TD that it is an ethical issue for the conference attendees, but we only get the black-and-white “go or don’t go.” The organizers could make it a lot easier by choosing reasonable venues.

10. r - October 9, 2007

I would expect a short and very simple document to be used in every group as a short of metrics to evaluate the performance of attending a conference (vs. getting the info. through some other methods). This is pretty common in the private industry. ¿What do you plan to achieve?. What are your goals?. Do you need to be there in order to achieve the goals? If so, why? Could the money be used more efficiently by not travelling? Yes/No? Tell me why. Did you achieve your goals attending the conference? If No tell me why ps.

It is an ethical audit run by everyone in my group (private industry). There’s no restriction on travelling or attending meetings or conferences if needed but every individual must carefully evaluate how they do spend shareholders’ money (taxpayers money in your example).

Nobody tries to intimidate people. The final decission is up to the employee. Just to think twice about expenses. My experience is people when asked to fill this simple form react positively and think carefully if it is worth attending metting X or conference Y. Ethics is left in the hands of the individuals. It works.

11. notfromaroundhere - October 9, 2007

I have a different way of handling this: essentially admitting that conferences are in many cases the closest thing I get to vacation, I pay most of my expenses out of pocket. I consider conference attendance as mandatory as a young scientist who needs “face time” to establish my career, so the money out of pocket not just spending money but is actually an investment in my future. I actually enjoy the conferences more too: if I’m on my own dime and I find the conference is not useful, I can take off sightseeing with no guilt. I believe the fact that I am young and single encourages this view, and I understand that not all people have funds to do this, but it does mostly remove the ethical dimension of the argument (the lost opportunity cost for hours not spent in the office might remain if I actually took all of my vacation each year but again in academia I don’t see how you can, you are almost always “on the clock”).

12. dorigo - October 9, 2007

Hi Karl,

I guess you picture it well: the benefits of attending a conference for one’s research are to some extent unpredictable. The rosy picture of mildly drunk attendees having genius strokes while scribbling on the back of envelopes is – well – rosy. More often, I see friends meet, beds undone, and photo sessions of the landscape around the site published on the web. But it must depend to a large extent to the matter being discussed: I know theoretical physicists benefit from the forced exchanges – they are more deprived of social relationships in their work environments – while experimentalists are less prone to discussing technical aspects of their searches and more likely to entertain themselves in discussions about the bouquet of that particular tocai.

I guess all I am saying is, each of us has his or her own moral standards, and one must confront with the way one uses travel funds. Is that conference likely to be good for my research ? Or am I rather picking it for the accidental closeness to a coralline reef ?


13. dorigo - October 9, 2007

Hi CSProf,

well, I consider dangerous to be able to decide freely on how to spend one’s travel funds without the need to justify it with anybody, and unethical the decision of attending a conference if one knows he or she will take home very little else than a tan.


14. dorigo - October 9, 2007

Chase, what you propose would be fine if all conference organizers stuck to it, but otherwise those who follow the proposal would have a tough time justifying the organization expenses to their institution, after the conference turns out to be a failure in attendence.


15. dorigo - October 9, 2007

r, I share your point of view, I think a document forcing you to answer some questions – even to yourself only – would go a long way in pinpointing one’s contradictions. If we are not forced to think over the matter of whether our conduct is ethical or not, we tend to neglect the whole issue.


16. dorigo - October 9, 2007

notfromaroundhere, that is a very sound approach. However, I do not see it happening – for young people it is mostly impossible, because of the smaller availability of private funds. And for tenured professors and research scientists, they would think they are admitting they are disposable, i.e. that their participation is not useful to anybody but themselves. I do not see it happening.


17. Fred - October 9, 2007

Hola Tommaso, etal.

What is the value of physically being at the same conference with the likes of Louise, Marni, or Lisa delivering their particular flavor of science at some exotic location?

(Insert dreams here)

Sugarplums dancing in our heads can justify many things and has the ability to swiftly do away with any silly notions of ethical dilemmas concerning organizational budgets. Otherwise, document and itemize everything and promptly deliver the expense voucher to the procurement department.

Buenos dias

18. Randall - October 9, 2007

I think that the issue rised by Tommaso is an interesting one. However, i think also that is part o a larger problem which involves all science as it considered nowadays.

The multiplication of conferences (and so of travelling costs) is related to the multiplication of journals and publication of books, many of which irrilevant for the field. I have a personal experience of that: some conferences I attended turned out to be a waste of time and money for the partecipants (despite the fancy place and the nice travelling that I enjoyed).

I do not see particularly the ethic issue for the scientists partecipating. A serious scientist, I think, knows how to spare money and how to maximize the benefits from a work trip (first of all deciding which conferences worth the cost of the ticket).

I think that the problem is more at upper level: why do some irrilevant conferences/workshops/journals get sometimes funds and survive? Shouldn’t be better to focus the attention of scintists in a certain fields to a smaller number of conferences/publications and use instead the possibilities of internet for smaller meetings?

I agree, how tommaso said, that sometimes is better to talk to people directly, but only in certain occasions.



19. Andrea Giammanco - October 9, 2007

Italian per diems are among the highest in the globe, as far as I understood. And if they are not in absolute value, they are certainly as fraction of the salary.
My current salary is roughly a factor of 2 higher than what I would have in Italy, but my per diem when I am at CERN is something like 31 euros (btw the hotel and bus tickets are paid apart), i.e. just a factor of 2 more than what I actually pay for two meals at the canteen (but much less than what I pay if the second meal is somewhere in downtown Geneva).
But I’m not complaining, I am actually very happy, because when I worked in Italy the high cost of the per diems were a serious reason for not sending people at CERN unless it was vital for the group (and when it was really vital, usually the group leader accepted to sign the request for reinboursement only if it declared many days than actually spent there – which is illegal, by the way, and unfair towards the worker since this means no insurance abroad). Now I can go to CERN whenever I feel the need to do that for my work (including meeting people in person instead of organizing videoconferences, since it is proven that the process of converging on any practical issue is way much faster around a table). The only limit now is not the budget of my group, but my resistence to frequent travels. This makes me feel more free.

20. Andrea Giammanco - October 9, 2007

> if it declared many days

here I meant: many *less* days.

21. Kea - October 9, 2007

I appreciate your point of view, but I must admit to being somewhat dismayed when I think that I could work as a full time researcher on the money that a single academic throws away on unnecessary luxuries, instead of waitressing for four days a week so that I can barely cover basic expenses.

22. dorigo - October 9, 2007

Lol Fred, the dreams you envision are rather improbable 🙂

Randall, you raise a good point: the trouble is mostly in the factory of conferences. We could do away with 80% of them and save the money to hire brilliant people like Kea (see comment #21), so that is a real waste. And so is the business of publishing proceedings…

Andrea, it is not true that italian institutions have trouble sending to CERN their personnel. In my institution, Padova, we have two researchers full time at CERN! You certainly know that. In any case, I think your university pays a reasonable amount for your trips, while INFN pays too much. On the other hand, salaries in Italy are too low…

Kea, as I mentioned above, I concur… I think it is a waste, but on the other hand I know that by waitressing you are following a plan that will eventually put you in the position of getting a research position with your own travel funds…

It is not so uncommon that the path to a dream job in science goes through some unexpected twist. I worked one year with people with mental disabilities before graduating, because back then all young men in Italy had to do one year of civil service or one year of military service. And another case comes to my mind: a CDF colleague and a fresh PhD out of Harvard, who had to go back to Greece for a three-year military service – and he was over thirty already (I think he only did one year though). He is now a professor.

Cheers all,

23. Kea - October 9, 2007

I worked one year….

Tommaso, I’ve been doing such things for 25 years! Anyway, LOL.

24. Amara - October 10, 2007


And how long to get reimbursed? In my Italian institute, the reimbursement time is 4-9 months. The travel goes on my personal credit card, as for every Italian scientist, and a credit card (perhaps like mine) with a low limit. So while I’m waiting for reimbursement, I am also paying interest on my business travel expense, and having difficulty paying daily living expenses because of the large chunk of money required for the travel. For me, these more than offset what might be high per diem (although INAF’s is lower than yours, I think). And to add insult: my bank (which is the default bank for all CNR scientists) told me that my ‘salary was too low’, when I asked for a higher limit to cover my scientific business travel.

The time for reimbursement is/was also a large reason why I started declining going on business trips for my own group and nurtured my collaborations and sought travel assistance from my colleagues outside. Reimbursement for my business travel when I collaborate with my colleagues outside was within one month, as is usual elsewhere.

Generally, I consider the method for how business travel is managed for the Italian scientists as somewhat insane. In none of my previous research environments in Europe or the US, has business travel been such a personal hardship for the scientist. The scientists have a base level unlivable salary, they often buy their own equipment like computers to do their job, and they cover their own business travel on their personal money for many months until reimbursement. In my opinion, for science to continue in the country in such circumstances, it must be subsidized by the Italian families.


P.S. When I say business travel, that doesn’t only include meetings and conferences, but any kind of necessary travel. The NASA Dawn VIR instrument was largely calibrated and tested on the massively overdrawn credit cards and family loans of several scientists in my institute, for example.

25. dorigo - October 10, 2007

Hi Amara,

INFN usually takes about three months. But, in cases when a large expense is foreseen, one can ask for a 70% advance before going for the trip, and that usually arrives by the time one leaves. So INFN appears to be much, much better than CNR in this respect.
Also, the plane tickets and train tickets are charged directly to our funding agent.

So I think the problem is with CNR. As for the low salary, well, of course I agree. It is probably three times lower than what it is in Germany or in the US. However, one must also take into account the fact that many employees in Italy have a low salary. Teachers, for instance, are paid even worse than research scientists. Now, of course researchers deserve a higher salary because of the higher level of education, but teachers simply get too little money to live on.

Ah, and, just today the news of a new contract for teachers might change the panorama a little bit… Not by much I think.


26. Religion at Freedom of Science - October 11, 2007

[…] and mathematics departments. They have figured the Achilles Heel of Doctors of Philosophy: they are paupers. A professional class without the professional class paychecks. Templeton Foundation discovered […]

27. Amara - October 11, 2007

Tommaso: There are restrictions that don’t make the advances too helpful. INAF (*) doesn’t give advances for hotels, but only conference registration and plane fares. And the agency that an INAF scientist can use to reserve plane tickets needs to be paid in two months (while reimbursement from INAF is 4 mos or more). If one is using low-cost airlines (and the scientists in my group always do), then the hotel is the significant cost, especially if one is at another location working for weeks at a time. Also the per diem for traveling to another Italian site for work is significantly less than when one travels outside Italy.. which is crazy, considering how expensive is Italy nowadays (I buy groceries in Germany and France sometimes when I have business travel, because groceries cost much less!).

(*) my institute split from CNR and moved to INAF in early 2006, so the following might be true still for CNR

28. Andrea Giammanco - October 11, 2007

> Andrea, it is not true that italian institutions have trouble sending to CERN their personnel. In my institution, Padova,

Ok, I don’t want to be too specific about particular situations…. Let’s just say that there are institutes with a budget which is not proportionated to the number of members.

> On the other hand, salaries in Italy are too low…

This is an argument that I heard very often, but this makes me very unconfortable. For two reasons:
– It encourages the practice of doing not-so-needed travels, with the “justification” of the low salaries; you can imagine how one can be happy to justify this approach in other people, when the group budget is over already in november (this happened…) and you cannot do your trip to some important place where important people insist that you explain your important work in an important occasion, because some of your colleagues, in the first months of the year, felt a moral justification in staying a bit more than needed because their salary is so low.
– It is unfair towards other scientists whose work is more “local” in nature (i.e. almost all other scientists: the existence of large international collaborations, or the need to perform the experiment in an external laboratory, are very specific of a few fields: particle physics, astro sciences, maybe the Genoma project; and I’m understanding from Amara that the astro people are treated in a different way). In fact, I had very unpleasant discussions with fellow scientists from other fields, who accused my cathegory to be privileged under all respects, including higher “effective salaries” due to the frequent and excessive per diems. Needless to say, they would enjoy a cut on our expenses to be redistributed to the rest of italian science. And while I can justify the major part of our large expenses (the big tools), the part about the per diems is very hard to defend…

29. dorigo - October 11, 2007

Hello Amara, sorry for the delay in answering this.

INFN has a non-existent per-diem for trips within Italy, where one is reimboursed for all expenses, if documented and not exceeding some maximum (I think 45 euros a day for meals).

It sucks that you have to buy your own tickets. I think the situation in Italy is improving, but only very slowly… If only this government lasted some more I think we would have a better situation in University and research centers soon. Fabio Mussi is doing a good job in my humble opinion…. His very first act when he was given the seat was to stop the italian veto on stem cell research in Europe.


30. dorigo - October 11, 2007

Andrea, the argument that salaries are too low makes others uncomfortable much sooner than it makes you uncomfortable. These are the recipients of those meager monthly paychecks.

I know there is no balance in research in Italy, all the money goes to physics medicine and biology. And yes, physicists’ per diems used to be on par with those of diplomats. Now I think things have changed, but they are still high.

I would not bitch about it. It is hard to change the situation. Let’s hope things improve…


31. Amara - October 14, 2007

Tommaso: I would say, rather, it sucks that science and technology has almost no value in this country. Cultural or otherwise. Those paychecks are not going to change until the Italian government thinks that there is value. And they won’t think that until the larger cultural environment things that there is value. A chicken or the egg problem. And so, while the kids continue to be taught what they are taught in school, things will proceed, as they are, as always. Sorry for being blunt. I wouldn’t be moving out of Italy (and leaving a permanent job) if I thought there was some hope.

32. Amara - October 14, 2007

Tommaso: I would say, rather, it sucks that science and technology has almost no value in this country. Cultural or otherwise. Those paychecks are not going to change until the Italian government thinks that there is value. And they won’t think that until the larger cultural environment things that there is value. A chicken or the egg problem. And so, while the kids continue to be taught what they are taught in school, things will proceed, as they are, as always. Sorry for being blunt. I wouldn’t be moving out of Italy (and leaving a permanent job) if I thought there was some hope.

33. dorigo - October 14, 2007

Amara, I disagree on the mechanism by which paychecks are likely to change. It is not the governmento that needs to change their way of thinking on the value of what we do. It is the people, italians, my fellow citizens. The government acts along the lines of consensus from the vote-casters. In Italy, there is a lot of people who thinks that teachers and researchers and professors are parasites of this society. And the other way round…

I do think there is hope, but maybe not in our lifetime. Change will be very slow, but things are bound to go in the right direction – to some extent…


34. amanda - October 16, 2007

It simply amazes me that there are people who actually *enjoy* going to conferences! The sheer boredom of the talks, the agonizing incompetence of most physicists as public speakers, the often unpleasant questioning at the end of a talk, the discomfort of travel when it is not for pleasure — it’s just torture. And totally unnecessary; on the rare occasion when somebody does give an interesting talk, you can find it all on the arxiv anyway. Furthermore, you could be working instead of sitting on that plane or dozing through another pointless talk describing research obviously doomed to go nowhete. And the incredible waste of taxpayer’s money on top of all that. So why do I go? Because my career would be doomed if I didn’t. And that is the most outrageous thing of all.

35. dorigo - October 16, 2007

Hi amanda,

you raise a good point – one can argue whether conference-going is pleasant or a waste of time and funds, but what one can’t argue about is that a thick list of conference contributions is a very important ingredient in the CV of a would-be academic.

What can I say – the mechanism is very well oiled. We need conferences for our careers, so we spend money to go. Conference organizers spend money to organize them because it also adds to their prestige. The money comes from funding agents and goes to hotel bills, plane tickets, and – what I find most annoying – to publishing companies. Perhaps the biggest fault is in the organizers though. They really gain little and produce lots of damage.


36. Amara - October 17, 2007

Hi Tommaso,
Amara, I disagree on the mechanism by which paychecks are likely to change. It is not the governmento that needs to change their way of thinking on the value of what we do.

OK, that’s the ‘egg’ of the /chicken or the egg/ problem. That’ll do fine, if you want to start there. I have no ideas for how to stress the importance of science and technology in a culture’s future, other than stressing the childrens’ education., in which case, we are looking at a generation of time needed for tangible changes.

For your amusement, I wrote the following editorial in October 2002 in “Italy Daily”, a four-page insert that used to appear in the Italian version of the International Herald Tribune, once per week. This time was 2 months before I moved to Italy, when I was much more idealistic, but also naive. It does give you some idea about why the western world is confused about the current state of Italy’s science, given the impressive past that the country has had.

Seeds for the Next Renaissance
by Amara Graps

As a result of Riccardo Giacconi’s well-deserved Nobel prize award for his astrophysics research that led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources, an unusual discussion has emerged in Italian public life of the phenomena of Italian scientists who emigrate out of Italy to pursue their research. As a foreign (American) astronomer in the process of immigrating into Italy to continue my work, I don’t have enough deep background information of this phenomenon.

Currently to my unexperienced eye, the brain drain shouldn’t surprise casual observers, as government-supported scholarships are very low, salaries to scientific researchers are barely higher than for bus drivers, large research networks are being told they must close, so then some Italian scientists eventually become too discouraged and vote with their feet. The word ‘discouraged’ is an understatement. Scientists generally have mild and forgiving characters and do what they do for the love of their work, much more than for fortune and fame. Therefore, the conditions leading to their departure was likely extreme.

However, any situation can change, and if one adopts the stance: ‘Yes, we’ve done that, now how can we make it better?’, I think I can offer perspectives to consider during your reflection on the role of science in Italian cultural life.

Italians have much to be proud in their past scientific and cultural accomplishments. Their long cultural history displays a vast range of experiences lending to a ‘done it all’ attitude and, hence, a daily focus of living well (eternally) in the present, according to the wisdom of what it has learned. With this as one’s environment, one might think that looking towards the future and making novel changes could be difficult. Is change difficult for Italians? One needs only to stand on a Roma streetside during peak traffic times, becoming dizzy with the whirl of mosquito-scooters, to know that Italy is a society in motion. To where does the society move? To where _can_ the society move? What guideposts can the culture use from its past?

Italy had and currently has many scientists one can imagine as role models, however, I can think of no better scientific and cultural guideposts for Italy’s future than Galileo Galilei, Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance.

Friends and colleagues have told me that Italians seem curiously nonchalant about the scientist Galileo. In our opinion, however, Galileo was one of the most important figures of the last one thousand years. He introduced mathematics into physics and hastened the separation of physical science from philosophy. Many U.S. high school and first-year university science students perform duplicates of Galileo’s laboratory experiments. Galileo’s house arrest and Pisa Tower exploits, either exaggerated or real, are prominent in the classroom stories. The NASA/ESA space mission to Jupiter and now orbiting Jupiter since late-1995, was named after Galileo. For my eight hundred planetary science colleagues at a 1999 science meeting hosted by our kind Italian colleagues, one of the most memorable events in our scientific careers was sitting in Universita di Padova’s “The Galileo Galilei Great Hall” and seeing Galileo’s pulpit, from where the great man lectured to his students.

Galileo Galilei was an astronomer, mathematician, physical scientist, and budding entrepreneur who advocated experimental evidence and individual experience over authoritarian elements. Two of my favorite quotations by Galileo Galilei are “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him to find it for himself,” and “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” As a guidepost for the future, Galileo Galilei’s achievements could remind Italians of the value of dogged determination and scientific rigor, of listening to one’s own heart and mind, and of observing technical progress and supporting new opportunities.

Leonardo da Vinci shared Galileo’s enthusiastic love of observation, investigation and discovery. His genius was that he excelled in an astonishing variety of fields that are now considered artistic and scientific specialities. For both his wide-ranging accomplishments and the period of his achievements, the description of him as a “Renaissance Man” uniquely suits his large stature in our history books.

How can Leonardo and the Italian Renaissance be a guidepost to Italy’s future? The Renaissance was triggered, in part, by a revival of Greek ideas. The Renaissance do-ers didn’t want to just recreate again, what the Greeks accomplished, instead, the creative individuals in the Renaissance wanted to build on those ancient ideas and then take those ideas further into new directions, permeating all aspects of society. The conditions in Italian civilization seemed to be primed for the first Renaissance seeds to germinate and flower, then those ideas spread to the rest of Europe like a breath of fresh air.

In our present complex times, increasing technological advancements swirl around us demanding more of our attention. Scientific education, research and awareness is essential, not only to keep pace with our fast-paced world, but also to provide a psychological comfort zone for all people in society, showing that humans are linked with the delightful discovery traditions from our past. We are all children at heart, perhaps Italians even more so, eternally seeking answers to age-old questions, and playing in the stream of time. I suggest to use the current discussion of the role of science in Italian culture, not as a way to lament past actions, but, instead, to embrace your past and present accomplishments and channel your endless energy to create seeds for the next Renaissance to germinate and flower.

Dr. Amara Lynn Graps (Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik, Heidelberg, Deutschland and Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Roma/Frascati, Italia)

37. Seeds for the Next Renaissance « A Quantum Diaries Survivor - October 17, 2007

[…] dorigo in news, science. trackback Not a guest post, but my lazyness today is triggered by a nice comment by Amara, who sent a piece she wrote for the International Herald Tribune a few years ago. It discusses […]

38. iMechanica - October 18, 2007

You may find the following discussions interesting:
“The Future of Conference” at http://imechanica.org/node/2101.

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