Monday, September 05, 2016 International Conference on Paleoceanography, ICP12, Utrecht

One of the rules of BlueSkiesResearch is that we do not go to conferences unless our expenses are paid. Rules are made to be broken of course, but it is quite a good test for whether the organisers of a meeting really want us, which in turn indicates how valuable to us the meeting might be. So, when I got invited to speak at something called ICP12 in Utrecht, and they didn’t seem that keen to fund me, I thought I would not attend. Then I asked some paleoclimate friends whether it was likely to be worth going to, they replied that ItIsTheBestPaleooceanographicConference And ItIsVeryPrestigiousOnceInALifetimeOpportunityToBeAskedToTalk!!!! How curious. I wondered whether there were any other Paleoceaographic Conferences, and how being invited to the one and only could possibly be prestigious. Then ICP kindly offered to waive the enormous conference fee, and when I looked up flights I was surprised to discover that Bradford to Amsterdam costs tuppence, and takes 5 minutes. So I decided to go.
An Utrechtion icon

I flew in on Sunday lunchtime and sat in on an DeepMIP meeting about putting together the ocean data for the Eocene. The meeting was held un University buildings near the famous tower pictured above. I’m interested in DeepMIP indirectly, as a potential user of the results in terms of data-model comparison and Past to Future studies, and I’m also editing their paper in GMD. So that was quite fun, even though sitting staring at a screen covered in wiggles in a hot room on a sunny Sunday afternoon is not at all consistent with the relaxed attitude to work of this dedicated no-career scientist.

693 cups of coffee?

The ICP conference ran Monday to Friday with 5 half-hour talks in the morning, plus a poster session and a ‘perspective’ talk in the afternoon, with Wednesday afternoon free. My talk was first thing on Tuesday. I’d thought that I would be able to study the style of the talks on Monday and possibly tweak my talk a little if required, however I soon abandoned this idea and realised I would just have to go with what I had. People seemed to be presenting overview talks of an area peppered with a little of their own work, where as I had prepared something about my own research. It was all very interesting and well presented (talks in the first morning ranging from little bugs in sediment cores, to mantle dynamics and ice sheet modelling), and you never know when things may turn out to be important, but of course there was nothing directly relevant to my present research interests. The style of the questions was more like that I’ve seen in social science conferences than in climate, ‘obligatory opening, “Great Talk.” followed by…Extended wibble about how great I am… then…Half a question…’ I was glad to see that the women didn’t take any part in this tomfoolery.

On the topic of women, there was a weird demographic, with very few women my age or older and possibly a majority of women in the younger generations. It had the effect of making me feel a bit old! I look forward to the community being normalised with a 50/50 ratio at all ages over the next couple of decades.

In the afternoon I entered the poster hall and was amazed by the number of posters, some of which were quite good. For example, there was a much higher density of interesting things than at your average AGU session. I noticed that two had my name on them somewhere, and one even had a picture from one of our papers. This was quite encouraging, as it indicated that our research wasn’t quite so far removed from some of the attendees interests as the morning session had indicated. What I didn’t realise until 2 hours later when I was mentally exhausted from going round the whole lot, was that the posters would be up all week with just a few each day being defended by the authors. I’d wondered why the authors didn’t all seem to be in attendance. Oh well!


Beer with Britons

That evening I went out and drank beer with some Britons and then corrected some typos and omissions on my talk – with help from James over Skype. After another sleepless night at the noisiest hotel in Christendom (tinkling church bells every 15 minutes, all night partying, midnight brass band, and the ocassional silencer-less car or motorbike racing past), and a nice buffet breakfast, it was time for my talk on trying to make use of paleoclimate information to learn about future climate. Most of the speakers were staying at the hotel so we were able to chat over breakfast and it was surprising how nervous they all seemed, even days before their talks. And when I got to the conference hall, my co-speakers of the morning were quivering. Apparently there were about 650 in the audience, but I can’t see how that’s any more difficult than the 300 you can get in a large room at the EGU. I tried to fit in by working up some nerves, but didn’t really manage – I was just looking forward to it. The talk went mostly OK, and then I was delighted to receive some properly aggressive questions. No “great talk” platitudes for me, but straight in with, “I jolly well hope you haven’t done xyz, because that would be super WRONG!” Hurrah for climate modellers! Critical thinking is not dead!!

The rest of the morning, and indeed Wednesday morning carried on with similar diversity to the first morning, although the authors spoke much more about their own work, so I’m glad I didn’t redesign my talk at the last minute. Topics covered modelling, bugs and isotopes over a range of paleotime, but with quite a big emphasis around the Pliocene. The really nice thing about giving the talk was that from then onwards, instead of being ignored by 600 people, they all smiled at me when they saw me. Over the next couple of days quite a few people came up and asked me about my talk. Those questions and comments were the most directly useful part of the meeting for me.


Tuesday Touristing

Having done the posters on Monday, I took the poster session off on Tuesday and attempted to tour tiny Utrecht. But I kept getting lost. The conference dinner was on Tuesday evening and was good fun. The break on Wednesday afternoon provided the unfortunate opportunity to leave, which I took advantage of, as I’d have had to pay my own way for the rest of the week. Just as well really as I was exhausted from the noisy hotel and had pretty much done the breakfast buffet. But I was sad to miss the talks on Thursday and Friday so I hope they will be put online.

So, it was indeed a very good conference, and I am sure all the background information I saw will help inform my research, but I am still not sure why it is quite such a big deal. It would be nice to go again, but you only get invited once and I doubt the next location, which is Sydney Australia, will cost tuppence and take 5 minutes to get to.


Steve said...

Um, just out of curiosity, is there a particular reason a brass band would be playing at midnight in Utrecht?

Louise said...

“I look forward to the community being normalised with a 50/50 [gender] ratio at all ages over the next couple of decades.”

Would indeed make meetings rather better. One reason why this probably wont happen, without lots of effort, is the subconscious biases that we all have. This means women, short people, and more generally anyone who seems different is not thought of with equal speed – or why it is difficult to think past tall white blokes :-).

What I’m trying to say is that getting something closer to a 50/50 balance at meetings needs active effort. Probably quite a lot. Asking organisers to ensure that a wide(r) range of people are invited may help. Perhaps you (and other attendees?) might think about sending comments to next years organisers?

jules said...

What I was pointing out was the skewed demographic with age, not the number of women in total.

The ratio of women speakers was fine. The ratio in the younger generation seemed fine. In fact I can imagine that there might in future need to be efforts to try to encourage more men into this area! The question is whether there is a "leaky pipe" that makes it difficult for women to progress. For the older generation, you can't demand a 50/50 ratio to be represented at conference, as it is just not there.

Tell you what though - there were really very few black people at the conference, either young or old, male or female!

Louise said...

That is somewhat reassuring :-). Did they manage 50/50 M/F then?

On age distributions, I have read that there can be a tendency to invite younger rather than older female speakers i.e. there may be quite a lot more older F researchers out there than appear on the invited speakers list. They just may not register (in time?) on the organisers radar.

I think I see evidence of this F-age bias at various meetings. And sometimes organisers just forget to ask any Fs - have seen this a few times recently - sometimes to the organisers subsequent embarrassment. Non-Caucasian invitation bias is perhaps even harder to gauge.

Louise said...

PS I also meant to imply that ideally Ms rather than Fs might think about contacting the organisers where they think maybe more Fs, or other minorities, could have been invited. Female scientists usually already do more than their fair share on bias issues.

Tom C said...

Umm - why on earth would one expect every field of endeavor to have a 50/50 ratio of men and women? Is there some universal law that dictates this and whenever it is not observed it is due to "bias"? Maybe - horrors - men and women do not have statistically identical interests.

Should we go to a convention of, say nurses, and "demand" a 50/50 representation? Plumbers?

Nevertheless, it seems you feel entitled to "demand" whatever ratio fulfills your wishes.

jules said...

Tom C
Not sure who you are accusing here, me or Louise, but I was only observing that the M/F ratio seemed close to 50% among the younger generation. My experience is that an approx 50% ratio results in behaviours from both sexes that are more pleasant (normal?) and easy to cope with. For that reason I think it would be nice if the approx 50% ratio could carry through to all ages.

I think the suggetsion to aim for 50% speakers in the older generation is ridiculous. From university in the late 1980s through to the mid 2000s, the ratio of women in most rooms of scientists I was in was consistently about 10%.

Louise said...

Tom C, Many UK science institutes are now required (demanded?) to address, or as a first step to investigate, the problem of gender bias and retention. Maybe see Athena Swan if you are interested in this topic. Accreditation through AS is a common requirement from funding bodies.

Tom C said...


You don't seem aware of the assumptions that lay behind your and Louise's comments. Counting the number of black persons in the room and trying to determine the "non-Caucasian bias" is symptomatic of a world view that declares equal numbers of white, black, brown, red etc. persons must be interested in climate science, or plumbing, or whatever. Maybe that assumption is simply not true and there is no "bias" to be accounted for?

Do you really think that someone planning the event sat in a room somewhere and said "let's not invite any blacks"?

James Annan said...

Tom, please take your petty bickering elsewhere. There are plenty of instances of bias, typically women being under-represented in lists of invitees even when plenty of strong candidates can easily be found. It happened in a meeting I attended recently, at least it very nearly happened, but some of us noticed the odd list of 100% male speakers and commented on it just in time. Another occasion at the AGU, the session organisers admitted they had invited 16 men - 4 per year every year they had arranged the session - in a field where plenty of women played. This really is part of our daily experience and it should not be airily dismissed.

I wouldn't want to have women invited just to make up a quota if they were not sufficiently interesting or relevant. However, in reality there are generally plenty of well qualified engaging speakers of both genders to choose from and somehow in my experience (such as the cases cited above and others besides) a large majority of the really boring irrelevant speakers tend to be men.

jules said...

TomC - actually it is you who seems lacking in awareness: of the well publicised literature on inherent gender bias.

That research obviously has nothing to do with the number of people I happen to count in rooms. That's just my personal hobby metric to observe the progession of the underlying population in the fields in which I've attended meetings.... Actually my new favourite metric is the toilet queue. Queues for the ladies have happened only twice to me at scientific meetings - it's a real novelty! First time was this time last year in New York at a WCRP meeting on monsoons, and then the second was this year at the meeting I have just attende, ICP. I think this may indicate that a revolution has occurred - at least in some areas/countries! All these poor women who don't realise that they aren't actually interested in their chosen subject area. They sure are great at faking it...

Tom C said...

"a large majority of the really boring irrelevant speakers tend to be men."

Lovely; no stereotyping to be found around here.

"I wouldn't want to have women invited just to make up a quota"

Quotas were the topic of discussion, viz.:

"The ratio of women speakers was fine. The ratio in the younger generation seemed fine. In fact I can imagine that there might in future need to be efforts to try to encourage more men into this area!"

Anonymous said...

Tom C, fuck off.

Anonymous said...

What is a "perspectives talk"? (My first expectation is the sort of thing you described as happening in the morning session.)

Tom C said...

Well - nice to see more civil discourse on this blog. You hip left-wingers really have no self-awareness.

EliRabett said...

Much more fun in Utrecht than Tom

Steve Bloom said...

Did you see Appy's promo vid, Jules?

An effort at a better balance isn't the same thing as a quota, Tom C.