Nature Blog: Science. Polish Perspectives

 

nature

When the organisers of the first Science Polish Perspetives conference (SPP) – held last year in Oxford – announced there was going to be a sequel, the expectations were running high. Those two autumn days spent in the neoclassical Magdalen Grove Auditorium, buzzing with popular science talks, panel discussions, poster sessions and social interactions, left the participants dizzy with excitement and gasping for more. If anyone had wondered whether the unusual concept of a conference bringing together scientists linked solely by a shared national background (but open to the whole English-speaking world) would succeed or not, the answer was a resounding yes.

This was largely thanks to the organisers, marshalling the tight conference schedule like air traffic controllers. It was two of these organisers, Magdalena Richter and Tomasz Cebo that took on the task of following this class act by bringing SPP to Cambridge in 2013, supported by a new team of enthusiastic Polish researchers Ewelina Gregolińska, Kinga Pławik, Ola Kołodziejczyk, Paweł Jaworski and Piotr Oleśkiewicz. In a fantastic feat of modern technology, the organising team managed to bring the whole event together without ever meeting in person until the day of the conference.

And so we are in Cambridge, the town of Wittgenstein and Hawking, with its quaint colleges, cobbled streets and an unimaginable abundance of relics of scientific history, from a bridge allegedly designed by Newton himself to the pub in which Watson and Crick celebrated the double helix. This well-preserved abundance is what makes places like Cambridge seem unreal, especially to a Polish mind, accustomed to mementos of the past being quickly wiped away in the course of a turbulent history.

The talks are short: 15 min for the students and 30 min for the keynote speakers, followed in both cases by a short question session. There are also panel discussions, lively and engaging, covering different aspects of the organisation of science in Poland, and workshops, a new addition to the programme. The overall standard of the student talks seems even higher than last year and most speakers put effort into making their presentations accessible and entertaining, veering away from the regular scientific format for specialised audiences and more akin to the TED lecture style. This supports the interdisciplinary approach of the conference in a very real sense, people from different disciplines actually being able to follow all of the talks and discuss them during the breaks. As for the topics, however, the speakers take no hostages, their subjects ranging from quantum mechanics to cellular trafficking to human memory. This is what makes SPP fascinating.

Unlike the students, the keynote speakers and most panellists come directly from Poland, consistent with one of the objectives of the conference being to bring together the best Polish junior scientists working abroad and the distinguished senior ones working back home. As the old-fashioned virtues of the older scientists are complemented by the enthusiasm of the young, the morale at the meeting is flying high.

Among the invited guests there are also representatives of Polish funding bodies and other organisations, as well as sponsors, the main one being the Warsaw office of Boston Consulting Group. The prizes for the most impressive student talks go to Agnieszka Lekawa-Raus (Cambridge), Michał Kępa (Edinburgh) and Joanna Bagniewska (Nottingham Trent), while Krzysztof Kozak (Cambridge), Jakub Bochiński (Open University) and Tomasz Augustynek (Leicester) are awarded for the best contributions to the poster session.

Like last year, and as with all good conferences, an equally important part of the conference happens outside of the lecture room over countless cups of tea or coffee, and even more glasses of wine. The formal dinner in Corpus Christi College is, not surprisingly, a huge success, and – the participants heading off afterwards to one of Cambridge clubs – is just a prelude to an evening of joyful celebration.

Science used to be considered something set apart, a unique type of activity completely neutral with respect to human considerations. However, since Thomas Kuhn’s consideration of the social impact of science, we have been aware that it is in many ways a human activity like any other. The personal aspects of research, and the interactions of those involved can be just as important for the resultant intellectual value as the what and how. With this realisation in mind, conferences such as this – where the scientists group together according to cultural and not just purely scientific criteria – are an exciting complement to the more usual academic conference crowds. This is a concept that has been strongly illustrated here at SPP 2013.

Scitable – Jonathan Lawson

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