Some thoughts on academic air travel and (a) future for conferences

Last week, Albert fired the starting gun on the discussion regarding the climate change impact of academic air travel and put a marker on the sand regarding his participation on any future conferences. Long story short, he is putting himself out of contention for conference engagements that imply flying.

I spent a few years thinking about this and going backwards and forwards with my feelings. On my end, I’m not ready to simply pull the plug completely on academic air travel because I still see them as a valuable part of my work. They are overrated as a content delivery mechanism (it is not efficient or cheap to put so many people in the same room at the same type) but they are invaluable on the social aspect. That has always been the bit I like about conferences the most.

Having said that, I cut significantly cut back my involvement on conferences (in general) for purely selfish motives. I have long stopped doing “pay to speak” kind of conferences which are the conference equivalent of predatory publishing. I also restricted my participation in conferences to 2 per year as each conference carries opportunity costs around the time they take to prepare and the clash with ever increasing work commitments at my university. I have also done so for more prosaic reasons as any conference abroad implies leaving my wife alone with parenting duties and we all know what that tends to do to women’s careers. Plus, after my health problems from 2017 I can no longer work at the same rate as before so I need to be even more ruthless with how I spend my time.

Albert’s plea is genuine and shows a deep level of care about the impact of his decision, not only for his career but also how it would be perceived in the wider academic community. I genuinely do not think his career has anything to suffer from the lack of participation in conferences requiring air travel but it is true that he (and to an extent myself) have reached a level in our careers where we can afford to take measures like this. His based on environmental concerns, mine on family, health and work/life balance. For us, good conferences are cherries on a cake and something we enjoy doing.

Paradoxically, taking this decision now is a easy option (the wide communication of it is not, as he put himself out to dry and inviting criticism) and frankly an option junior researchers might not have, especially due to the social element of the conferences. You show your wares and meet up the important people in your field - those that may be in hiring committees in the future. And my take about social relationships is that everything else being equal, the one with a wider network wins. That, I think, will be the crux of the matter for early career researchers on top of their difficulties on getting funding to go to those conferences too.

But there are things we can do to help out those further down the ladder. The first is when invited offer our place to a junior colleague. I benefited hugely from refusals by more senior people earlier in the career and I have long started to pay it back to the more junior ones.

Then there’s other stuff we can do. Maybe I should restart the Public Procurement Podcast and see who is out there early in their careers and in need of a boost of their profile. Or, as I suggested Albert earlier today on twitter, perhaps design an online only conference. These days I’m watching more and more videos on Youtube (aham gaming videos in case you’re interested) and their quality is excellent. Livestreaming with tools like Twitch is very convenient and way more accessible than in the past. Technology has evolved significantly from the days of the dreaded ‘webinars’ of 10 years ago. Communication with the audience is possible in real time and that can help create the effect of a community.

All this has made me think on how I would do my BARSEA project today in comparison with 2015? The podcast would stay as it is way more mainstream today than then, but instead of doing an ECR day in person I would do it online and keep the videos on Youtube/Vimeo or any other provider of the like.

So, let’s keep the conversation going.

Season 2 of the Public Procurement Podcast is coming

TheBritish Academy was kind enough to release some follow up funding for my British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, making a second season of the Public Procurement Podcast possible.

Not much is changing for season 2. Episodes will last around 30 minutes and the whole season is again 20 episodes long, with new releases every two weeks from early May onwards. As with season one, the focus is again on early career researchers in public procurement with interesting research to tell the world. I am actively looking for interviewees in areas other than law and regulation this time around, so if you're interested to be interviewed or suggesting a colleague, please get in touch.

PS: Speaking of the Rising Star Engagement Award, this year's cohort is looking excellent and I am delighted to see esteemed colleagues like Amy Ludlow (interviewed here for the PPP) and Yseult Marique as award holders.

Reflections on Season 1 of the Public Procurement Podcast

Season 1 of the Public Procurement Podcast wrapped up earlier this month, so now is the time to reflect on the experience. In one year I since getting the go ahead, the website went up and so did 20 interesting interviews with (mostly) early career researchers in public procurement. Here are my learning points:

1. Interview preparation is key

I have plenty of experience running interview podcasts, but sometimes it is important to look back to the basics to get them right. Of the 20 PPP interviews I know which ones are my favourites and they all have something in common: those are the ones I put in an extra effort to know the interviewer well in advance, especially what he/she wrote about. This is not news for me: I remember feeling the same 5 years ago with ShowcasePT and before that with my Ph.D. Bottom line: good prep leads to good interviews.

2. The more focused the better

Interview prep also helps in making the interview tighter and more focused, something particularly important when the chat is lasting only 20 or 30 minutes. The more focused the discussion, the better the outcome.

For each interview I discussed with the interviewee in advance the general questions/topics we would explore in the talk. Sometimes that worked really well, sometimes we just veered into the woods. But that is important as I do not like to set interviews in rails and prefer a degree of free flowing which occurs naturally in a conversation.

3. Evergreen content leads to good audience numbers

I am huge fan of "evergreen" content, ie interviews where the content is not time sensitive like news interviews. The PPP follows this strategy on purpose, with only a limited number of interviews being a little bit more time sensitive. For the most part, the interviews will still be relevant in 2-3 years down the line and that is a good thing. Anyone coming across the podcast or the website in the meanwhile will benefit from content which is as relevant as when it was published.

To add value to the content I decided from the start to have transcripts, something different from my previous podcast forays. I picked up this idea from someone who does interview podcasts much better than myself and is using transcripts for ages: Andrew Warner from Mixergy. He explained to me once that lightly edited transcripts add value as with the same content you are providing something extra and enlarging the audience by reaching people who would not listen to the podcast in the first place. I think he's right and the transcript text surely helps Google index my content and raise the search profile of the PPP website.

So what about those numbers? Well, we're now up to 670 regular listeners (monthly hits on the podcast RSS feed) and the usual weekly number is around 250-300. Individual visits to the website are also quite good: 400/month in the last 3 months and an average of 208 since launch. Frankly, numbers are much higher than originally anticipated. Not bad for a niche product.

4. Always use the right equipment and on the right conditions

It really helps to use the right equipment to record a podcast. All interviews were done via Skype. My usual set up is a Rode Podcaster, connected to my trusty 2009 Mac Pro with the recording done via Audio Hijack. I do not do anything fancy to my room other than having a sound absorber of sorts and closing the window blinds to minimise reverb. The audio is always recorded in separate tracks so that the audio editor can mix/edit as appropriate. 

I was out and about for two interviews and had to record with a travel mic on my Linux laptop. It worked ok, but the sound quality on my end was not as good as in all other interviews. Plus, speaking to pillows sitting on a shelf to absorb ambient noise is not really fun.

5. Getting the right team on board really helps

I was very lucky with everyone involved in the podcast's production. Amy did an awesome logo and Cody did a great job in setting up the website on Squarespace. On the day to day running of the podcast Richard Pennington (audio editor) and Adele Herson (transcriber) were always on the ball making sure their bit was done on time and professionally. As for the last two I have to confess hating editing my own podcasts in the past and transcribing my PhD interviews. Having them on board released my time to more profitable activities and mental bandwidth for what I really like to do: talk with people about interesting topics.

What's next?

I would like to run a second season of the podcast, probably with a broader set of interviewees than season 1. There are a lot of people involved in procurement which are not early career researchers which would be great to interview: more senior academics, practitioners, policy makers, service providers and procurement professionals. There is a lot to talk about in procurement.

Now if only I could find someone to replace the kind support of the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award for Season 2...

Public Procurement Early Career Researcher Conference Tickets

I have made available a few (free) attendance tickets for the conference. If you are interested in joining us for the day, please go to this EventBrite page and register. First come, first served.

The conference is made available by the generous support of the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards.

PS: The British Academy also sponsored the current series of the Public Procurement Podcast.

Launching the Early Career Researcher Public Procurement Conference (March 4th, London)

We will be holding a one day conference for Early Career Researcher Public Procurement Conference at the Centre for Transnational Legal Studies in London on March 4th. 10 Early Career Researchers will have the opportunity to present their research on a non-threatening environment, benefiting from presenting at a leading international conference early in their career and getting expert commentary on their research. We are looking for promising researchers passionate about public procurement irrespective of disciplinae and interested in engaging with a non-specialist audience.

In addition, the conference will include a ‘speed-dating’ mentoring session in the afternoon, allowing for the beneficiaries to expand their personal networks and helping the development of their career plans. Participants are also invited to take part in the dinner that evening.

Thanks to the British Academy Rising Star Engagement award and the kind facilities offer by the Centre for Transnational Legal Studies it is be possible to reimburse travel costs (up to a maximum of £350), offer one night accommodation and also the dinner on the night of March 4th.

The call for proposals is open at the Public Procurement Podcast website until January 10th.

We already have some confirmed appearances. In addition to myself, Dr. Albert Sanchez-Graells, Dr. Ama Eyo and Professor Roberto Caranta will also be taking part. I will be confirming further names in the next few weeks.

In case you are not an Early Career Researcher and would like to attend the conference, drop us a line as we will have limited spaces available.