This week, the Society for Neuroscience is holding its annual meeting in Chicago. Everyone who is anyone in the field neuroscience, along with 30,000 of their friends, postdocs, and students will converge to hear hundreds of presentations, view thousands of scientific posters, and race importantly from committee business meeting to committee business meeting squeezing in some hits at social event to social event. So why am I, a neuroscientist working for a private funder of neuroscience research and living 250 miles from Chicago not at Neuroscience? Why, if given the choice between going to Neuroscience and having root canal without anesthesia would I choose the dentist office?
In part, my answer says a lot what I think is problematic in the current climate of academic research.
1) Most attendees are charging every expense against research grants while bemoaning the lack of research funding. (Note: even gobs of stimulus funding has not diminished the academic indoor sport of whining for dollars – the behavior is so ingrained in academic scientists that nothing shuts it off.)
2) The atmosphere tends towards self-conscious self importance. The important and powerful neuroscientists are readily distinguished by their plumage of colored ribbons hanging from their meeting badge. A lack of ribbons marks one’s relative anonymity (and lack of clout) in the Society.
3) A depressingly large number of presentations – both platform and poster – will after the first few hours, sound and look alike.
4) The highlighted big name talks are primarily geared to attract press coverage – with little concern about the accuracy of the results. The primary goal being to engender public enthusiasm (and ideally funding) for neuroscience – and not necessarily understanding.
To be fair, Neuroscience does serve some positive purposes. Old friends catch up. Graduate students rub shoulders with some of their heroes. Jobs are offered and accepted. Business is accomplished. The local economy gets a little bump. One friend, defending why he was going – told me he found it “humbling” to see the size and breadth of the field. I guess. I just find it crowded and boring. And if anything really exciting gets presented – I’ll read it in the paper with my morning joe in the comfort of my own home.