On the conference circuit – from Melbourne to Thailand and back again

In an academic work environment you could say that one of the ‘perks’ is representing your work, or collaborative work, at academic and topic-focused conferences (However in comparison to my days working in the private health industry, business travel in the University signals a more economically responsible mode, namely frequenting the back of the plane rather than the upper deck on long haul flights!). This year has been no exception for me, being fortunate to attend a range of conferences on topics of public health, health promotion, knowledge translation and exchange, and obesity prevention.

So we pack our bags, roll up our posters and prepare our presentation slides at the eleventh hour – but what for? What motivates researchers and practitioners to scramble to find funding so we can run laps of the conference circuit? What benefit does our research and its end-users gain from us attending these forums?

Recently I attended with colleagues what might be considered seminal conferences in public health research/practice/policy: The World conference on Health Promotion by the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE) – in Pattaya, Thailand, followed by the Public Health Association of Australia annual conference – in Melbourne. We’ve also attended emerging conferences in our field of interest: The “FUSE 2nd Conference on Knowledge Exchange in Public Health: How to get practice into science” – in Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands; and the “2nd Annual NHMRC research translation symposium: from Bench to Bourke” – in Sydney. Note the similar style of the long-winded titles on the last two conferences on knowledge translation… For people interested in communicating and doing ‘real world’ research, you’d think we’d have more succinct event titles!

Aside from enjoying a working week near a sandy beach or among fields of tulips, I believe that conference attendances (and active participation obviously) are a necessary perk if we want our research to be useful and utilised, and if we want to link our ideas to a broader national and international dialogue. At these conferences, I took away a few points about the issues being explored and debated, as well as some reflections on what we gain from attending, and thus what we offer as research practitioners. Here’s a wrap-up, fresh from my suitcase.

Salient issues that resonated for me as a conference participant:

  1. Social justice concerns are high on the agenda in public health and health promotion.
    All the policy, practice and research communities represented at theses conferences appear to be very dedicated to chipping away at the systemic barriers to attainment of good health. Good thing.
  2.  Public health and health promotion decision-makers, advocates and researchers need to better articulate what we do, and what good it does.
    What is public health and health promotion anyway? Sure, we all know that the sum of our parts is more than water sanitation and quit-smoking campaigns, but try explaining that to a new acquaintance at a backyard barbeque. And what are the benefits of investing Government dollars in preventive health? Can anyone tell me the economic return on investment of health promotion partnership meetings, or the productivity gains from banning junk-food ads in kids TV viewing hours? Either way, a strong theme that continued to emerge for me was the sheer lack of public outrage when public health research funds are cut, or when a health promotion unit is shut down.
  3. Working across sectors means singing from the same song-sheet.
    I often go to conferences realising that I’m preaching to the converted. It’s not a new concept that public health and health promotion decision-makers need to be working with other sectors like planning, transport and education – this message has continued to come through, but more focused on tweaking our agendas and language, to make it easier to work together. Finding processes to allow cross-sectoral work are getting more focus too – like embedding health impact assessments into local government’s power. We might be a long way away from that but in the meantime we can at least coordinate the message.
  4. We keep on with research to know that we are doing the right things, and doing things fairly.
    Not all of the conferences I went to had an ‘academic’ or scholarly focus, but thankfully, I walked away from each and every session knowing that the majority of attendees valued the role of research and evaluation, rigorous methods, or evidence-informed decision-making – all of this is achieved by furthering research and academic inquiry.
  5. It takes specific skills to advocate, and without advocacy, our concerns won’t be heard.
    Like me, you might not always feel comfortable with the term advocacy so let’s call it leadership, or whatever you like – either way, see points #2 and #3 above. We need to find smarter ways of communicating evidence and knowledge to influence decision-making.
  6. We all love a framework!
    I think every conference session I went to had a ‘framework’, ‘model’ or ‘tool’ which was ‘guiding’ or ‘underpinning’ or ‘informing’ their approach. Hopefully this is more than jargon, and actually means rigor and systematic ways of conceptualising and working – whether you’re in research, practice, or somewhere in between. So I think it’s a good thing, as long as we don’t get lost in translation!

What I think we gain and can offer from active participation at conferences:

  1. Disseminating research and practice.
    This is an obvious benefit, and the one most often used by conference organisers to lure you into spending $900 of your precious budget to be out of the office for two days, subjected to death-by-powerpoint, and forced to catch up on all your emails late at night after the welcome reception. But in order to ‘keep it real’ and stay connected to the broader health and wellbeing dialogue, attendance and active participation at conferences are actually an efficient way to communicate your work. Ok, so I might not feel that way when I’m standing next to my poster watching conference delegates walk straight past, making a bee-line for the coffee stand without an interest in my glossy artwork and data. But if you’re proactive to network, interact, present and tweet, it really is an chance to build the profile of your/your team’s work, and get others to know who you are and what you do.
  2. Networking and engagement.
    By signing up for conferences, we open ourselves to public scrutiny of our work, and let’s not forget those awkward moments of introducing yourself to that esteemed Professor or Policy-maker who has no idea who you are. But this is almost always a positive outcome. We meet new people with similar passions, discuss different contexts and ways of working, and maybe even score a new collaboration, friend, or new LinkedIn connection. The use of social media is really growing at public health conferences, engaging both participants and those who couldn’t attend in person. I’ve come away from every conference with lots of new follows and followers, which also boosts engagement of the research group and links in our other collaborators.
  3. Broadened thinking, new perspectives.
    Sitting in an early morning plenary deciding what to tweet really makes you think about what you think about the topic. In my early days at conferences I probably didn’t reflect much, and was more focused on staying awake and when the next coffee break was. But as a more experienced practitioner, I find that I am continually thinking, appraising, analysing and reflecting on what’s being said. I ask more questions, and use the breaks to chat (to anyone who’ll listen) about the perspectives emerging at the conference.
  4. Confidence.
    After meeting such a range of different people from different contexts, doing different jobs and working in different ways – you realise that you’re all doing good stuff and sharing the goal to promote public health. It’s a nice confidence boost to have your work verified in an international or national context, and helps you feel like you’re on the right track.
  5.  A break from routine.
    I work in an office, and I can’t say I get regular tea-breaks with cake and tropical fruit, nor am I offered a selection of mini-baguettes for lunch. Conferences are good for this. But I do think it is good to get away from the desk and reflect on your practice within a broader context. I always enjoy catching up with colleagues old and new, who are equally as nerdy and equally keen to get out of the office for a few days. Another emerging trend at conferences which is a very welcome break in a workday routine is tea-break flash-mob dances. Enough said.

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