The bigger picture: where is the all disciplines conference for Australia?

What is the role of big interdisciplinary conferences? What do events like the recently held annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) provide?

If they are of value, should we reinvigorate something like this in Australia?

A recent Nature editorial has discussed general science conferences, arguing that these conferences allow researchers from various backgrounds – as well as policy-makers, stakeholders and citizens – to come together to discuss issues of broad public import that cut across disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, the editorial suggests that “for researchers wishing to enhance their awareness of the bigger issues and of other disciplines,” these meetings are a gift.

Australia doesn’t presently have such a forum. Yet it used to, and it should have one again.

The Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (later the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, or ANZAAS) held its first meeting 1888. At the time, scientific work in the colonial cities of Australia was disparate and disjointed; with only three universities on the continent, an interdisciplinary meeting was the only way to form any community of research in the country. The first meeting brought together researchers in these quite disparate areas:

Section A Astronomy, mathematics, physics and mechanics
Section B: Chemistry and Mineralogy
Section C: Geology and Palaeontology
Section D: Biology
Section E: Geography
Section F: Economic and Sicial Science and Statistics
Section G: Anthropology
Section H: Sanitary Science and Hygiene
Section I: Literature and Fine Arts
Section J: Architecture and Engineering

Over time, these meetings became less and less important, their fundamental role of community building usurped by stronger disciplinary conferences within Australia and internationally. Indeed, this is not surprising: over time, the very reasons for being of the early AAAS and ANZAAS conferences (the low number of researchers in Australia and the near insurmountable tyranny of distance) disipated.

Yet we now know that overt disciplinary dogmatism – at the expense of all other engagement and dialogue – brings its own problems. The problems we are facing in Australia – from our changing climate to problems in health care, from social dislocation to problems in energy generation – are problems that cannot be solved by a single disciplinary lense alone.

We need an interdisciplinary conference for Australia that brings together researchers of all backgrounds, alongside policy-makers, stakeholders and citizens. ¬†We already have a model in the ANZAAS meetings, why can’t we bring these meetings back to life?

[Update; thanks John Rayner]

Image by flickr user Genista, used under a Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “The bigger picture: where is the all disciplines conference for Australia?

  1. From my investigations of the proceedings of the early meetings of the Australasian (not Australian, as New Zealand was always present) Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the various strands of the conference took place in virtual isolation from each other apart from the opening address of the president of AAAS. I think that one therefore needs to be careful to distinguish between a general conference and an inter-disciplinary conference. I certainly agree that inter-disciplinary conferences are essential but that they need to be structured in such a way as to facilitate inter-disciplinary activity. Thus, panels and workshops where there are presenters/particpants from a variety of disciplines and the inclusion of experienced knowledge brokers would be important elements of such a meeting. Science communicators could well provide the necessary glue that would make the whole thing work.

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