As previously mentioned, I spent the last days on the Atlanta Conference for Science and Innovation Policy. To apply for a talk, one had to submit a paper already in February. At that time, it wasn't clear to me I'd be living in Sweden when the conference actually took place. Flying from Europe to America for only a few days is very exhausting, plus I have to cover expenses myself. But I am glad I went. The conference has been very interesting, I learned a lot, and got useful feedback on my talk.
It was a very interdisciplinary meeting with a diverse audience. People were here from engineering, over economics, psychology to various disciplines of the social sciences, from institutions outside academia and from funding agencies. And then there was the theoretical physicist. Participants came from all over the world, many from developing countries, since science policies in the developing world was one of the topics on the program. I spoke to a PhD student who studies science policies in Argentina and Chile, esp. their telescope programs, and talked to some people about Neil Turok's initiative AIMS. I learned about a project called ARGO, a truly international project, which maintains an array of floats to measure water temperature and salinity. I've also never been at a conference where the woman to men ration was so close to 1/2.
It is pretty much impossible to summarize the conference. You will get a good impression of topics if you look at the lists of talks and abstracts, which you find here. What I found somewhat annoying was the high number of parallel sessions, up to 7, which means no matter what you'd miss several of the talks you wanted to hear.
The organizers also tried out a new sort of session called "roundtables," that for all I can tell worked badly. They took place in one room with, guess, round tables, with about 8 seats each and a different topic for each table. While this created a nice atmosphere for discussion, the catch was that the people leading the discussion (at least at the tables I was) had applied for a talk and only learned two days earlier they were supposed to be on a round table instead. As a result, they just printed and handed out their presentation or, worse, put their laptop on the table and pointed to it. That sort of format might have some potential though if the topics for discussion are chosen differently. It very efficiently bridges the gap between the speaker and the audience.
I went to a couple of talks on collaboration- and coauthorship networks, both in the scientific community and for patents, investigating the change in these networks over time and the development of new fields or collaborations. These studies in the area of scientometrics are one of the fields at the intersection of the social, natural and computer sciences that have only become possible within the last decade, because data wasn't available or couldn't be handled before that. I find them tremendously interesting, as they tell a lot about the process of knowledge discovery with the prospect to better understand which conditions are beneficial or counterproductive. Needless to say, funding agencies have a certain interest in this research and in fact, some of these studies were commissioned by the NSF.
Also here was Bela Nagy from the Santa Fe Institute, who spoke about Comparing forecasts of technological progress. I missed the first half of his talk, but he set up an open database at pcdb.santafe.edu where you can download or play with the data he analyzed yourself. You can also upload your own data. You find an introduction to his research on YouTube.
Some instances were very amusing. For example, in a panel discussion the first day one of the speakers, Caroline Wagner from SRI International, began with saying she recently heard on the Science Channel that we live in a world with 11 dimensions. Then she compared that to the "multidimensonality" in her field of work. She asked the audience how many had heard of these 11 dimensions. From about 200 people, maybe 5 raised their hand.
Another speaker, Diana Hicks, renamed normal- and power-law distributions into "hill" and "pipe" distributions, explaining that a quarter pipe is the only real world example for a power law that she could find. Since the curve of said pipe actually falls to zero at a finite value, and certainly has no "fat tail" of any sort, it was somewhat unwillingly comic. In any case, the talk raised an interesting question. Hicks pointed out that the relation between the number of scientists and their output is not a normal distribution, but that instead a few scientists (or institutions respectively) are top and carry a load of the output, and then there are a lot who don't contribute much. The question is then whether funding should be distributed proportionally (to any measure of such scientific output), or more equally.
Besides "power law," other buzzwords of the conference were "vertical disintegration," "transdisciplinarity" and "complex systems." It is amazing how easily one can get a speaker to stumble by simply asking what they mean with "complex." I also learned that what the NSF calls "transformative research" is called "Frontier Science" in Europe. Somebody pointed out in his talk that support of innovation is almost exclusively on the supply side, by funding basic science, and argued that one should stimulate also the demand side. It's an interesting thought. Presently it seems to me the supply- and demand side for basic science is pretty much identical.
Several people spoke about their initiatives, institutes, or conferences with the purpose to get science policies across to the governments of various countries. What I find puzzling though is how completely disconnected these studies about science policies, collaboration, group dynamics, interdisciplinarity, and so on, are from the researchers who actually work in these fields. This disconnect was one of the reason for our last years' conference on Science in the 21st Century.
My own talk on "The Marketplace of Ideas" went very well, despite a cold that I seem to have caught on the plane. I will give you a summary later. Listening to my coughing and sneezing, somebody recommended a homeopathic remedy in the coffee break. She would take it before the fist symptoms set in, and it had helped her to avoid getting a cold in the first place several times. Makes one wonder.
I'm flying back to Sweden tonight, just in time for the announcement of the Nobel Prize.