Conferences: old wine in new bottles

Upon evaluating my visit to the 10th EFIB conference in Brussel, last October, I realized there was a disappointingly limited number of new and interesting topics. Many of the topics discussed at the conference concerned old wine: that also were treated much more comprehensively when I first learned about them.

Photo: Agi Nyeki, Freeimages.

The problem isn’t limited to the EFIB-event. There are more bio-based related events that neglect the latest developments in the field or where actual topics are not discussed at all. Whereas, when a conference is very up to date on the most recent developments, it is immediately much more interesting. Like when topics involving synthetic biology were discussed at the EFIB-conference in Glasgow in 2016. There, next to a comprehensive workshop, an impressive number of industrial bio-tech projects explained the role that synbio plays in their development.

As EFIB proclaims, they ‘…provide a platform … for highlighting the latest in groundbreaking innovation in industrial biotech.’ However, the last EFIB-event mainly presented innovations that were at best groundbreaking years ago. During the networking reception on the first day attendees wondered why this was. They attended the event to learn more about the latest research and developments and to be able to discuss these with peers.

Photo: Jacqueline Munoz, Freeimages.

Conferences can ‘drop dead’

It could be that the development stage of conferences plays a role. Many years ago I was on my way back from a disastrous international recycling conference in Geneva. A fellow traveler, involved in organizing large international events, explained to me over a beer that quite often successful conferences ‘drop dead’ after about ten editions: they become settled and easy going, they make the wrong choices, the money runs out, politics changes or public interest dwindles or all of the above.

The EFIB Advisory Board for the 2017 event included a large number of representatives of settled bio-based industry. Understandably these industries are starting to feel the need to protect their own interests. Typical consequences: an increasing number of presentations is preceded by a formal disclaimer and the content of these presentations is already known to everyone who’s kept up with bio-based developments in recent years. Future developments, plans and expectations are also not discussed.

Offering unreserved support

But events like EFIB should not be about protecting established bio-based industries. Event organizers need to be advised about the latest developments, and should be offered unreserved support to include these in their event programs. I think it is for example disappointing that there are often only a few universities and research institutions present. Because that’s where new developments often emerge, and all academic research institutes are longing to talk about what they are doing.

The bio-based industry is not even at the beginning of being fully developed. A lot of known and unknown unknowns need to be clarified to help build a robust and sustainable bio-based economy. Conferences that want to showcase the latest in industrial biotech need to maintain sufficient and independent information channels. They needs to keep eyes and ears open to learn about contemporary fields of bio-based interest, and about new developments.

In order to support their own developments, companies and institutes nowadays are much more geared to make knowledge available. In comparison to this, Intellectual Property and closed organizations are lagging. Conferences can play a role in stimulating knowledge sharing and propelling the bio-based industry forwards.

Also published on Wijnand’s personal blog.

Interesting? Then also read:
Lost in translation: dysfunctional science communication
Synbio is gearing up
Specialty carbohydrates: a very specialised biobased industry

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