Of conferences, 5 yr olds and Professors

No bad science this time – Dr Aust muses on scientific conferencing, family life, and the usefulness of child psychology

As indicated over on the diary page, Dr Aust has been away this week at a conference.

Sadly this was not the conference where Bad Science guru David Colquhoun was delivering his latest broadside against Inhuman Resources, Homeopathy-loving Vice-Chancellors, Herbal Remedy Entrepreneurs and the like. However, Dr Aust’s conference was in a different EU country, there were some good talks, and plenty of old friends to catch up with. Which almost made up for the rather spartan University accommodation, and particularly the need to walk 300 yards to get a breakfast cup of coffee and a Pain Chocolat.

Now, conferences and travel are part of a scientist’s life, but one tends to go through phases of more or less enthusiasm. As a youngster I would have told you that the travel was very definitely one of the best bits of the job. In my thirties in particular I wholeheartedly embraced the global travel possibilities of science, spending a couple of European Summers on “working holiday” enjoying the Australian Winter – which was actually far better weather than the Northernshire Summer – and visiting plenty of other interesting spots.

However, I found that as I approached my forties it all began to get less enticing, and when Jr Aust arrived even less so. And since this time last year, when Baby Aust joined us, my “conference drive” has reached a historical low.

Though conferences still have their attractions. Most parents occasionally fancy a night or two away from the kids. This, and the promise of a few beers and potentially a good night’s uninterrupted sleep, gives child-free conferencing a bit of allure. On the other hand, when I get there I find that I miss the little blighters terribly. Together with the fact that I can’t drink like I used to – getting old, I fear – this means that “conference fatigue” sets in earlier than it used to. Currently I find two and a half days of concentrated conference is about my limit.

Of course, when you get back, the happiness at being home lasts about a day before it is replaced by the usual family mayhem, which starts you thinking about conferences again.

Vive la resistance… er?

Now, a key part of the family mayhem at Aust Acres at the moment is the continued inter-generational psychological warfare being waged mostly by Jr Aust. This titanic struggle alternates between armed guerilla action and Gandhi-style passive resistance (though with added screaming). In essence it involves Jr Aust (just turned five) and Baby Aust (eleven months) competing for Dr Aust and Mrs Dr Aust’s attention.

Baby Aust is simply being a baby, and does not realise he is competing, of course. The same cannot be said of Jr Aust.

It is all very tiring, though I am sure it will all work out in the end. If we all survive with our sanity intact.

Is child psychology the answer?

Actually, I have recently come round to thinking that I may have been approaching this family dynamic problem wrongly. In particular I have, I think, been guilty of treating Junior Aust as too much of a small adult. She is, after all, only just five.

But of course, five years olds and adults do have some things in common.

Dr Aust has an ex-Head of Department, now retired, who had originally trained as a clinician, and much later became Dean of a Medical Faculty. Once upon a time, many years ago now, two of Dr Aust’s colleagues and friends at work were engaged in a bitter feud, with Dr Aust haplessly trying to mediate. The ex-HoD, who also knew both parties, used to offer Dr Aust occasional sage advice.

In one of these conversations, the ex-HoD and Dean told Dr Aust:

“Do you know, I never could really work out what the point had been of having to study child psychology during my medical training…. Until I became Dean of Medicine and had to deal with lots of Clinical Professors”.

Now, Dr Aust only has the one daughter, but he has dealt over the years with lots of Professors – mostly non-clinical but with occasional clinical ones thrown in.

So anyway – no more treating Junior Aust like a small grown-up.

Instead I shall try treating her like a Professor, and see if that does the trick.


21 Responses to “Of conferences, 5 yr olds and Professors”

  1. Svetlana Says:

    I can say as a local Big Tiger that the consideration of THIS child as a Professor is quite right way! :) She is worthy.

  2. Anne P Says:

    Nothing works better with one of my classes of sixth formers than pretending that I’m a primary school teacher.

    And I’m sure world politics would run more smoothly if diplomats trained on the under 10s.

  3. Neuroskeptic Says:

    I’ve got a conference coming up in my own town… it doesn’t seem very exciting. I think I’m still in the “travel one of the best bits of the job” phase.

  4. draust Says:

    Yes, conferences on the doorstep don’t really have that much glitz value. Though from a middle-aged perspective they have the advantage that you get to sleep in your own bed.

    One downside I have found over the years is that being presumed to possess “local knowledge” means you tend to acquire a retinue of conferees, who think that by following you they will get lead to an excellent local bar / restaurant. These days I have to tell them that I have no real idea about any eaterie or bar more than 200 yards from my front door.

    I think it was the arrival of the kids that really killed my conference wanderlust. Though they drive me mad when I am at home, I find being away for more than a couple of nights quite difficult. I suspect this wears off as children approach the teenage years, judging from my academic colleagues with older families. So if I am still working in academia as I approach my 60s (a somewhat depressing prospect in many ways!) I may yet recapture my youthful enthusiasm for the paid long-haul trek…

  5. chuckbert Says:

    Nice article. Frighteningly close to home: I could have written it (if I could write that succintly). Especially the academic management, spreadsheet and decreased conference-wanderlust. I used to find travelling to conferences fantastic, but now I’d rather be with the family rather than getting too little sleep in an uncomfortable bed after misguidedly following someone to a disappointing and awkwardly located late night drinking establishment the night before a 7:30am plenary lecture with a very interesting title, but disappointingly dull and poorly prepared speaker.

  6. draust Says:

    Thanks, chuckbert.

    Other pet conference hates of mine are:

    (i) people who can’t be arsed (or are too important) to prepare the talk properly and therefore try to cram a 40 min talk into 25 min simply by talking quicker;

    (ii) chairs who let speakers (including the above) go way over time, thereby curtailing the coffee and lunch breaks.

    One rather eminent Professor of my acquaintance, who I reckon attends at least twenty meetings a year, gets particularly riled in condition [ (i) + (ii) ] above when the chair then says:

    “Well, we don’t really have time for questions… but let’s have some anyway, I’m sure we all agree that science is more important than coffee”

    “Absolute !**ing rubbish”, I recall my friend muttering “at this point the coffee is FAR more important the !**!! science”

  7. Svetlana Says:

    I agree only with the one piece of these two comments, namely with words “***ing rubbish” ;) It is the only reasonable words in all text :P

    But I repeat them for quite different cause. I am cocksure that there is the only best way to get a pleasure at the scientific conferences. You should drink free tea (!) with tasty free cakes, sugar, lemons (or milk), and other tasty snacks at the compulsory free conference’s lunches, accompanying the drinking of this great beverage by the listening of most interesting lectures and reports. But no free coffee (absolutely dreadful in such conferences!) and no strong drinks in dubious local night establishments and – certainly! main thing! – no dull and boring lectures, whatever their alluring names and venerable lectors! 8-O
    At some conferences you can also partake of (free, of course) a good wine (e.g. in Hungary) and a delicious meal on the receptions. And if you are interested in a good night club, then you can invite cool guys & girls (better – Nobel winners or sort of it) from any great lab, which came to the conference too (what a chance to start the scientific collaboration! Why not, eh?.. ) either to your (their!) hotel or to nearest comfy restaurant. It will be most indescribable carouse in your life! ;)

    Oohhh, foreign colleagues! As I see, you don’t absolutely know how to live in the world! Probably you need some special training courses – “How to come to the scientific conferences and to survive there” :D I can lecture it, if you are interested in…And then, as a practical part of the courses, we all together will come to some pretty conference… ;)

  8. Svetlana Says:

    By the way, some scientific conferences are quite proper place to take your children with you! And why not? Scientific conference is the very place for children of the scientists. Or must we send them to kindergarten? What a nonsense! :) (seriously – the kindergarten was worst place, which I remember in my life!)
    Do you think that I joke, eh? Not at all. Some my Russian colleagues took their children to the scientific conferences and both parents and children were pleased. I don’t know, maybe your children are….some… “not those” ;) However our “scientific children” looked very worthy “young people” at these conferences.
    The conferences are really very interesting thing. There is good cultural program there as a rule. Besides, the different nice colourful books, journals, toys, gifts, clothes, sweets and meal are offered for participants. And there is enough freedom for children there.
    Oh, if somebody took me in my 5-7-years old age to the scientific conference I was so happy. My mother worked as a doctor in policlinic. When sometimes kindergarten didn’t work in Saturday and she took me to the policlinic I was very glad. And I was never bored there and the policlinic seemed to me more acceptable place than hateful kindergarten. When I started to go to school it was like eden after hell.

  9. draust Says:


    I think your first comment is rather missing the point. Conferences are a good thing for scientists- it is just that personally I find I enjoy them less than I used to. The post was a minor think about why, but I think it was clear that it was me that had changed, not the conferences. I used to attend several international meetings a year right through my late 20s and (especially) 30s, and I even used to write reports on them so I could get to go more of them free. But as a general observation a lot of people find their conference enthusiasm wanes as they get older – though it is not true for everyone.

    I agree that the food and drink, including the conference “refreshments” are important, since it is over the food and drink and coffee breaks that most real dialogue occurs. I was once so impressed by the ever-available (and excellent) free coffee, pastries, Bratwurst and beer at the German Physiological Society that I devoted several paragraphs to them in my conference write-up.

    Re. the second comment, people still do bring families on occasion, but on the whole the families strive to avoid the actual conference.

    I think taking the family has perhaps become less common as travel has gotten cheaper overall these last 20 years, since now it is more feasible (expense-wise) to take the family on holiday without the “subsidy” of one member travelling free (i.e. going to a conference). I used to know a few academics who would take the family along. I particularly remember one eminent American Professor I know joking in his mid-40s at a conference that that year’s family holiday had been the first one in a decade where he hadn’t had to pack the slides for a talk – but I haven’t seen many kids around this last decade or so. People still bring spouses along, but again they mostly avoid the conference events. And the only time Mrs Dr Aust came to a conference with me (pre-children), she was severely bored – so I don’t think we will be dragging the sprogs along soon, unless the conference is within 100 km of her birthplace and family home.

  10. chuckbert Says:

    I agree with your pet peeves and add another: Eminent visiting speakers who arrive 5 minutes before their talk and leave 5 minutes after leaving hordes of (well, maybe 2 or 3) disappointed students and postdocs who thought this was their chance to network with someone who might be important to their science and career.

    Having a scientist wife. we have gone en masse to a conference (most recently with our 5 yr old girl, <1 yr old boy). Frankly it doesn't work well. We both miss a lot of the networking opportunities, the kids can't sit through more than 10 minutes of the talk, and it is impossible for me to concentrate on the science when switching into Dad mode takes precedence.

    I have found it horrific in the states at conferences where it literally is the family holiday as both parents only get 10 days leave per year.

  11. Svetlana Says:

    Doc, you could answer by the only phrase: “Dr. Aust’s is in the spleeeeeeeeeeeeenn…” :P
    It seems it resembles a bit the state of Sherlock Holmes, who has no good case ;)

    Yes, I agree that “it is not true for everyone”.

  12. draust Says:

    You have exactly the same child configuration as we do, CB (daughter just five plus son just one), though Mrs Dr Aust is a medic and not a scientist. Anyway, as I said, I can’t see us dragging Jr Aust and Baby Aust to a conference, except in pretty exceptional circumstances.

    Which are possible, of course. I recall another American acquaintance bringing his family (wife and two just-about teenaged kids) to a conference in Australia where they seemed to be having a whale of a time, but that was a 4-day meeting in a nice-ish resort in Leura up in the Blue Mountains. I would guess that with walking boots and a hire car his family probably didn’t have too much trouble finding things to do while we were all sat in the conference sessions…

  13. draust Says:

    Forgot to say – re Chuckbert’s pet peeve, the best recent example of this I have heard of was the Star Speaker at a Gordon Conference who insisted on a limo to pick them up from the airport (so they could remote work via laptop), arrived early evening just in time to do the talk, and then departed in another limo early the next morning. Plus business class airfare, naturally.

    My view is straightforward – don’t invite people like that, no matter what their eminence. Unfortunately, one always hears organisers of just about any conference claiming they HAVE to have these “star names” on their slate to get anyone to register. Which tends to suggest there are too many conferences these days.

    Given the likely drop in everybody’s marginal funding, it will be interesting to see if some conferences go to the wall.

  14. Dorian McILROY Says:

    Sounds like you’ve become jaded after living high on the hog for too long.
    I aim for one international conference a year, because
    a) I don’t produce enough results to have more than one new thing to present per year, and
    b) that’s all the lab budget can stretch to.

    The only time these conditions didn’t apply was for a short period when I was being very (well, by my standards, anyway) productive during my first post-doc. Unfortunately, my lab boss had a “publish first, talk as an invited speaker afterwards” policy, so by the time my stuff was “presentable” I had already left the lab…..

    Anyway, now I continue to view conferences as rare treats that allow me to get away from the family for a few days.

    As for your 5yr old versus baby problem, just be thankful there’s only two of them! At least you and MrsDrAust are not outnumbered. In situations when there’s only one of you around, I would be inclined to give precedence to the 5yr old, just because they’re more interesting to play with. Just leave the baby to get on with his own baby games, like sticking bits of wire in the plug socket, falling down the stairs, and drinking all the bleach in the cupboard under the sink.


  15. Dr Aust Says:

    I’ve never been that terribly productive, Dorian – I was just quite a good blagger in my younger days. I got very good at one stage at tagging the conferences onto holidays (so I would pay my own airfare), or onto lab visits, which meant one could pitch to the funders for conference / visit grants on a kind of “two for one special” basis. I mostly used to have to write for one-off funding for conferences, as I only occasionally had a project grant rich enough to fund long haul. The Royal Society were one of my regular sources of travel funds, and the Wellcome too a couple of times. Later I started writing conference reports as a way of getting there on the tab.

    I struggle to work out how people manage with more than two kids. I do have a theory that it helps to have an “easy” baby first, as then you think it is less of a struggle and are more likely to “go for the treble”. I can’t see us having any more – my sanity is hanging by a thread as it is – but Baby Aust is so much easier a proposition that Jr Aust was that, had we had him first, we might just have managed another one in between.

  16. Svetlana Says:

    Austin, can you explain me, why it has been done???!!! 8-O
    Does Singh want to make a peace with BCA?
    Or does he think that Guardian will publish his paper?
    Or does he hope to win the case by SUCH way?
    Or, at last, does he agree that removed words are really LIBEL???


  17. Svetlana Says:

    It is worse than cowardice.
    This is a STUPIDITY!

    I don’t know what part of body it was necessary to think by, but exactly – not by head!!!!

  18. draust Says:


    My rather simple minded assumption was that they are just trying to raise awareness – of the case, of what was actually said, and of the way in which English defamation law “acts” on such matters – by reprinting most of the article.

    Anyone who reads it and wonders “Uh-huh. And what was the supposed libel, then?” can find out easily enough, e.g. by reading Jack of Kent’s blog, or Jack’s discussion of Judge Eady’s ruling, or even my own analysis of the case from last August.

    As I understand the law (which is imperfectly, IANAL, see various caveats passim), while the case is active, and especially post Mr Justice Eady’s ruling on the defamatory meaning of the debated words, Singh (or anyone else in the UK) cannot re-publish the article in its original form without committing frank contempt of court, as well as repeating the defamation (or repeating an allegation the judge has ruled was defamatory, if you prefer).

    The English legal system (and most others too) takes a very dim view of people “flouting” court decisions. Re-publishing the article in its entirety would undoubtedly lead to immediate legal injunctions to suppress the (re) publication, and (if it were done by Singh or with his express or implied approval, say by Sense About Science) would certainly be taken as “compounding” the alleged libel (making the “damage to reputation” worse by saying it again after the judge had specifically ruled it was libel). This compounding would likely lead – in the event that Singh were ultimately to lose the case – to even higher damages.

    However… none of this applies if the article is reprinted without the offending phrases about the original “offended entity”. The comments about chiropractic and chiropractors are identical, but there is no defamation. So it seems a rather sensible measure to me.

    Personally I would have liked to have seen the Guardian re-publishing this version. But you can’t have everything, I suppose.

  19. Svetlana Says:

    Wild nonsense!
    And if 15000 bloggers re-published this article in its ORIGINAL version, would these 15000 people be punished for their “committing frank contempt of court, as well as repeating the defamation”??!

    I shall leave original text in my blog surely. I don’t intend to respect the stupid laws. I was not taught this in my native country! :P

  20. draust Says:

    Err… I doubt individual bloggers would be pursued, unless they were very prominent and widely read – but as I read it there would be nothing to stop the court seeking to punish such individuals for contempt. I would also hazard a guess that the more readers a blog has, the more seriously the offence would be viewed by the court.

    What I expect would happen would be that the lawyers for the complainant would seek injunctions against the ISP and/or webhosting company that hosted a blog. These are (typically) companies with financial resources, and thus unenthusiastic about findings of contempt of court against them, or being fined large amounts of money. And the webhost would then take down the post, or even the entire blog.

    We have, of course, been here before several times, e.g. with the Society of Homeopaths vs. the Quackometer, or the Quackometer vs. Joseph Chikelue Obi. The latter is relevant because it was Netcetera, the webhosting company, that insisted on taking down the post. And that was after just an utterly unconvincing threat of legal action – not an actual court ruling and the strong likelihood of being found in contempt of court.

    Like it or not, once a court has started looking at the thing and made a ruling, flouting that ruling is not the same as re-publishing something that someone has merely claimed they think is defamatory (and muttered about “legal action”).

    In the latter case – see the SoH vs. the Quackometer – by re-printing the piece one is showing solidarity, but also daring the offended person/organisation

    “Are you going to sue me too?”

    (or yelling “Spartacus!”, if you prefer).

    In the current situation one would be waving two fingers in the face of the judge, the courts and the legal system. Not a wise move. And unnecessary.

    Far more sensible, in my view, to try and change the law so that in future defamation suits would not be brought in such circumstances. And also to do what the bloggers have done, namely scrutinise the disputed claims and show that Singh was speaking the truth about the lack of meaningful evidence for the claims made by the BCA and its members. Ben Goldacre gives a lovely summary, complete with Obi Wan Kenobi reference in the title, here.

  21. Beware the spinal trap – with added amateur legal musing « Dr Aust’s Spleen Says:

    […] my correspondent Svetlana has taken great umbrage at the reprinting of Singh’s article without the contentious phrases, an action she characterized […]

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