Phew. The inaugural Public Pocurement Early Career Researcher Conference was held last Friday at the Center for Trasnational Legal Studies (CTLS) in London. And it was a blast. Thank you British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards for making it happen!
Due to changes on the original planning (it was supposed to be part of Procurement Week 2016, my wife got pregnant, etc) I had to come up with some alternative arrangements while keeping it in London. CTLS made available a great venue for a small, friendly, relaxed conference. Here are some of my thoughts on the day.
1. Small is good
I have never been fond of large, commercial conferences and as time passes on I am less and less interested in them. Confusion, chaos, too much happening, not enough time or "feel" too meet up and talk. I just do not get a lot out of large conferences these days.
I never wanted the PP ECR to be anything large - in fact, numbers were capped at 40 and we had around 35 participants. More than enough for a good vibe and discussion between audience, discussants and speakers.
Perhaps the traditional job to be done by large conferences (getting people together and having access to ideas/papers not available elsewhere) is better achieved nowadays by other means - mainly via twitter/facebook, linkedin or blogs.
A small conference fulfils a completely different role however. It allows participants to get together, have meaningful conversations and actually get to know each other. The smaller setting also helps people to test new ideas, limiting the fear of failure or ridicule.
2. ECRs and PhD students need help to get in the conference ladder
I count myself lucky as my participation in conferences both as a PhD and researcher was never put in jeopardy due to funding issues. But those were other times. There are not many conferences out there where Early Career Researchers and PhD students can present their research to an audience and have their costs covered. If we do not help them get in the conference circuit and into the wider network of academics, practitioners and policy makers, they will find their career progression much more difficult. Hopefully the contacts, additional line on CV and feedback will improve their likelihood of attending and presenting their research in other conferences. Ultimately, that's what I wanted them to achieve.
One of the benefits of the conference was bringing together different generations of academics, all with something to say and suggest. For example, Roberto Caranta suggested to 3-4 participants to get together and tackle a specific topic within public procurement remedies.
Being able to mingle ECRs and PhDs turned out to be a good idea as well. I was never very keen on the segregation imposed by PhD conferences where newly minted PhDs end up commenting on soon to be minted PhD students. Much better to get all of them to present their ideas and have more experienced colleagues doing the sharp commenting. Which is a nice segway for...
3. Two discussants per panel or paper
The original idea was to have a single discussant per panel. As more and more people wanted to get involved and contribute, I decided to have instead two discussants per panel. It worked really well as everyone had something different to say to the speakers. In hindsight, I am happy to have suggested them to comment on papers as if reviewing a submission for a journal or edited collection.
I have taken part in way too many PhD conferences where the feedback is lukewarm, circular and frankly simply polite to be of any use to the recipient. At the PP ECR conference, criticism ended up being balanced - if honestly sharp - but constructive and with the prospect of getting those ideas shaped up better and published. No wonder we had plenty of discussion during coffee breaks and lunch!
4. Short timescales can work
Due to unforeseen circumstances, timescales were shortened a lot further than I wanted. But things turned out ok in the end. All papers (and menu choices) were received on time and discussants made good use of the 4 days they had to criticise the papers. Turns out academics can keep to short timescales!
I do regret not having asked for the presentations to be sent in advance too - as it would have given me the possibility of improving the decks before the presentations and to achieve better the aim of delivering the presentation at a level understandable by a lay person. But that is a consequence of reduced timescales and bigger babies - sorry, fish - to fry on my part in the last few weeks. Nonetheless, I will go through my notes to provide participants with feedback on their presentations in the next few days.
5. It's ok to discuss preliminary ideas instead of fully formed ready to print papers
It has always puzzled me that in law we are expected to discuss/present fully formed papers. And only once. Why?
Every time I chat with colleagues from economics they all say to me their best papers spent a few months/years on the conference circuit, being bashed by critics/audience, reconsidered ad rebuilt a few times before it is submitted for publication. What is the consequence? The end result is much better after the nth revision than the original one.
I am quite happy that we ended up with a mixture of formed ideas with more exploratory ones. Both types engaged the audience and made for good debate. That means, however, papers themselves will remain private. As for the presentations, they're available now on the conference page of the Public Procurement Podcast.
6. What's next
I probed the participants during the dinner for an ambitious idea I had a few months ago. That may or may not come to pass, but the conference was good enough for Albert to *tentatively* hosting it in Bristol in 2018. That leaves me with the job of finding the money for it.