A lack of depth at issue conferences

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Many of the panels, speeches, issue sessions and awareness campaigns I attend focus on the same few facts and issues. People working in similar areas often joke that they could give each other’s presentations because they’re pretty much the same every time. In a lot of situations, this is appropriate — a strong message should be presented to as many people as possible, and using a lesser example for the sake of novelty isn’t that useful.

But more and more I find that it’s difficult to find the new ideas, the new examples and the in-depth coverage that a lot of challenging topics really need. My field is energy and the environment — and though I agree that everyone needs to be taught a few key facts that can help explain broader trends, I’m fascinated by how often conferences targeted at the energy and environment community don’t bother to go beyond those few facts. I guess a lot of work gets done behind closed doors — or at least, I hope so.

I spent the past week at the World Energy Congress in Montreal, listening to lecturers from all over the world. Representatives from governments, major companies and research institutions were out in force at this conference, which only happens every three years. Most of the speakers had about half an hour to get their main messages across. Given the audience of thousands of energy professionals — including many making use of simultaneous translation into five languages — they had obviously given some thought to what they were going to say.

Over the course of the week, I was surprised at how homgeneous the speeches were. Admittedly, the conference is somewhat intended to streamline the energy industry’s message, so perhaps this was to be expected. And certainly, major themes should be discussed and assessed from many angles. But my conference experience didn’t go far beyond overviews of those major themes.

Almost every speaker alluded to global energy poverty, but many did so inconsistently — I almost started tallying the keynote votes for whether 2 billion or 4 billion people have inadequate access to energy (I believe it’s almost 2 billion with no access to modern energy and almost 2 billion more with very limited access). And almost every speaker commented that all forms of energy will be necessary for the future, though the environment is a concern, and we shouldn’t worry too much.

Audience questions were occasionally thoughtful, usually way too long and often Google-able. When given the chance to ask questions of major decision-makers, people asked about conversion factors and widely reported government data from fields that were only marginally related to the speaker’s profession.

While the conference did have technical paper presentations, which usually go into some detail about processes, methods and new research, those sessions went almost unadvertised and were put in time slots against CEOs’ and Ministers’ keynote speeches. I don’t think many of them had more than 10 or 15 people attend. And that’s fine — technical papers are not the focus of that conference. But given the emcee’s constant references to our hard days of work and given that everyone at that conference is close enough to the energy industry to grasp the broad issues without too much explanation, I was left wondering where the work was.

As with any conference, the real value of this one was in the potential for interaction with other people interested in the same issues. The structure of large keynote speech to large panel to large keynote, with few highly focused sessions and little time for audience interaction beyond a few questions, made it hard to find people that must have been there somewhere. I leave this conference, as I have left many others, wondering what the solution to the problem of getting people together to actually do work on big issues might be.

Work gets done in companies, in research labs and in universities; it gets done when people meet each other briefly and collaborate; and it gets done through focused grants. Big conferences and awareness campaigns are valuable for bringing people together and making sure everyone has the same few facts, but they are not good fora for depth.

I’m not sure how, but I imagine there must be some way to better take advantage of the concentrated presence of hundreds or thousands of people who care deeply and have great knowledge of the issues at hand. Otherwise, attendees run the risk of being mere conference tourists, learning little beyond what we could have read in a newspaper. This problem is not unique to the energy and environmental communities, but given the tasks and opportunities at hand, it is something we might want to address soon.

<em>Grubert is an environmental and water resources engineering graduate student.<em>