Gordon Conferences: Professional Meetings Par Excellence

Author: JEFF SEIKEN, p.19 This summer, when approximately 11,000 scientists from around the world gather in New England for the prestigious Gordon Research Conferences, they will be marking a special occasion: the conferences' 60th anniversary. In reaching this milestone, the conferences have managed to reverse the aging process, for, if anything, their vitality has increased with time. Over the decades, the Gordon conferences have evolved into the United States' premier scientific forum. T

Apr 29, 1991
Jeff Seiken

Author: JEFF SEIKEN, p.19

This summer, when approximately 11,000 scientists from around the world gather in New England for the prestigious Gordon Research Conferences, they will be marking a special occasion: the conferences' 60th anniversary. In reaching this milestone, the conferences have managed to reverse the aging process, for, if anything, their vitality has increased with time. Over the decades, the Gordon conferences have evolved into the United States' premier scientific forum.

The format of the Gordon Research Conferences (GRC)-- limited-participation, free-form discussion in closed meetings and informal gatherings--has been freely imitated by other groups, with GRC's blessing. The symposium series currently administered by the New York-based Engineering Foundation, one of the meetings patterned after the Gordon blueprint, began in the 1960s as an offshoot of the conferences.

More recently, the Bethesda, Md.-based Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) turned to GRC director Alexander Cruickshank for assistance in launching a summer conference along GRC's lines. Besides supplying FASEB with a complete rundown of the Gordon system and its underlying philosophy, Cruickshank offered the use of GRC's reserve site at Saxtons River, Vt., as a venue for the meetings. The FASEB series debuted at Saxtons River in 1982. This summer, 10 conferences are scheduled to run there, and another eight are slated to be held at Copper Mountain, Colo.

Efforts are under way to replicate the Gordon format in Europe, as well. A group of European researchers from a number of disciplines (including German ethologist Hubert Markl, head of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft granting agency, and physicist Sir William Mitchell of Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford, England) are attempting to develop a series of European Research Conferences, which would be modeled after the GRC. According to a report in Nature (350:179, 1991), the organizers have asked the European Community for a five-year appropriation of 10 million ECU (approximately $7.7 million); with these funds, they plan to sponsor as many as 120 conferences a year by 1995 in chemistry, physics, biosciences, geosciences, and the humanities.


"In terms of enhancing my knowledge of my field and my ability to do science, it's definitely the best of the regularly scheduled conferences," says biologist William Muller, an assistant professor at Rockefeller University in New York.

They have "an outstanding reputation," says chemist Richard Nicholson, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

High praise indeed, but according to Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) director Alexander Cruickshank, testimonials such as Muller's and Nicholson's are a refrain he's heard many times during his 43-year association with the conference series. And by all indications, the summer of 1991 looks to be another banner season for GRC, with 110 symposia scheduled to run between June and August.

The name "Gordon Research Conferences" refers to both the conference series and the brain trust behind the meetings. GRC is a nonprofit institution incorporated in New Hampshire, but headquartered at the University of Rhode Island, where Cruickshank, a chemist, is professor emeritus. Administrative guidance and support are supplied by GRC's council of the conferences, composed of representatives from the conference series' founding industrial sponsors, 15 scientists not connected to industry, and the chairpersons of the individual conferences. A board of trustees selected from this body carries out the council's policies, while a separate selection and scheduling committee arranges each year's calendar of conferences.

To a large degree, the stature of a conference reflects the caliber of the scientists associated with it, according to Cruickshank: "If you read our roster, you're reading about some of the top scientists in the world."

The conferences are known--and highly respected--for their distinctive format. The meetings last five days and are held during the summer at prep schools and private colleges scattered around New Hampshire and Rhode Island. (GRC also hosts a winter series of symposia in California.) The scale of the gatherings is kept deliberately small; Attendance is restricted to no more than 125 people per conference and the number of presentations limited to 25.

Two other key rules contribute to the series' singular character. First, no sessions are held in the afternoon, to allow participants to interact then on a more informal basis. More significantly, all presentations and conversations are considered off the record, meaning, among other things, that the press is not allowed to cover the proceedings.

"You're listening to information that's probably about two years ahead of where one would see it in the open literature. You can imagine what a two-year lead time means in high-tech materials," says Roger Porter, professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts and a past chairman of several Gordon conferences.

Porter points to a presentation made by Jerry Jackson, a researcher at the Eastman Chemical Co. of Kingsport, Tenn., at a 1980 Gordon conference on polymers as an example of the kind of cutting-edge concepts sometimes introduced at a Gordon meeting. "The idea of polymer liquid crystals just exploded after [Jackson's] presentation," Porter says. "People went home with those seminal ideas and started working immediately on this whole new area of thermotropic polymer liquid crystals."

The benefits extend to the scientists on the presenting ends of things as well, as speakers can gain immediate feedback on their latest experiments and ideas from the best of all possible audiences. "These are the people who will critically review your experiments," explains Muller. Last year, Muller used his colleagues at a Gordon conference as a sounding board to help him sort through the results of some experiments completed only a week before the meeting. "I got a chance to get feedback from a lot of different people in the field, and that was very helpful for me."

Admission to a Gordon conference is contingent upon acceptance of an application; this helps to keep the size of the more popular meetings within the prescribed limits. The process also ensures a diverse mix of scientists from academia, industry, and government. Cruick-shank estimates that 75 percent of the people who apply are accepted. According to Porter, going to a Gordon conference is "not like attending a musical concert. You have to be able to play an instrument."

For the graduate-student and junior-scientist set who make the cut, the rewards are substantial. A Gordon conference "offers the young scientist the chance to do an apprenticeship," Porter says. "He doesn't have to read information off of a sterile piece of paper. He can ask, `Where did you buy something? Was that really easy to do; didn't it degrade?' He can pose all of these practical questions over lunch."

For the researcher with a newly minted Ph.D., keeping company with the some of the top intellects in one's field can be a heady experience. Even after the passage of some 20 years, Nicholson's memories of his first Gordon conference are vivid. "I was sitting there eating and drinking with people I had just read about. These were my heroes at the time," says Nicholson, who, through his position at AAAS, serves ex officio as a member of the GRC board of trustees. "You can go to a meeting and hear them give a talk, but at a Gordon Research Conference you're playing tennis or having a drink with them. You really get to know one another."

Senior scientists have their own reasons for welcoming the presence of a few fresh faces in the crowd. In Porter's opinion, young scientists bring the sort of inventive ideas and novel perspectives necessary to keep the creative ferment of a conference bubbling. "Conferences age like people age. If it's the same group talking for 20 years, then obviously [the meeting] will go out of style," Porter says.

The scientists interviewed for this story agree that the rules on confidentiality are central to the series' success. They say the casual, off-the-record environment encourages people to toss out new ideas without fear of sounding foolish or having their theories cited back to them at a later date. And the secluded settings help, too, ensuring that everyone's attention remains focused on science.

"You're not going out, getting show tickets, or going home," Porter says. "The entertainment is for scientists to talk to each other." "Because you're sort of stuck there, you have plenty of opportunity to buttonhole the person you wanted to talk to, and vice versa," says Mary Mandich, a physical chemist at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. "During the afternoon, people take a hike together, go swimming together, sit on the lawn together, or whatever."

Adds Mandich, who will be chairing a conference on metals and semiconductor clusters this summer: "That's when people get a chance to speak their mind and ask questions they might otherwise feel intimidated to ask."

The close quarters breed friendships that sometimes blossom into fruitful collaborations. "Someone will say something and you have the chance to think about it and talk some more. A lot of ideas and collaborations start this way," says Muller.

The free-form format occasionally leads to trouble, however. More so than at most scientific gatherings, group dynamics play a critical role at Gordon conferences. Thrust together for five intense days, everyone in attendance must cooperate and show some restraint if the sessions are to serve their intended purpose. "Everyone wants to talk," Porter says. "But in this democratic process of free discussion, serious self-discipline has to be exercised. [Otherwise,] certain strong egos can easily dominate the discussion and [control] the direction" of the meeting. Keeping the more vocal personalities in check and maintaining a degree of balance during the discussions is, Porter acknowledges, "a perpetual problem."

Individual conference groups function as autonomous units, except with regard to one immutable rule: The group must adhere to the Gordon format completely. Violations such as exceeding the attendance ceiling or scheduling too many speakers will result in probation and, possibly, removal from GRC's roster. "We want to maintain the Gordon format because we know by experience that it works well," Cruickshank says.

Nicholson credits the absence of interference from above as an important factor in the willingness of so many top-flight researchers to chair Gordon conferences. "There's no bureaucracy dictating what the substance of the meetings should be. Some of the best scientists have very little patience with bureaucracy," he says. Conference chairpersons also need not worry about the logistics of the meetings, because GRC handles the housekeeping details.

That the Gordon format has proved so successful also attests to the vision of the conferences' namesake and founder, Neil Gordon. A professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, Gordon was disturbed in the early 1930s by what he saw as the tight cloak of secrecy with which too many researchers concealed their work. This lack of communication among scientists, Gordon believed, led to a duplication of effort that only slowed the advance of science. He was also convinced that the large meetings that were the rule at the time did little to alleviate the problem.

Gordon organized the first of what would later become the Gordon Research Conferences at Johns Hopkins in 1931. The meeting met with immediate acclaim, and within five years the program had swelled to five symposia. Gordon reigned as director until ill health forced him to step aside in 1946. The following year, W. George Parks, a chemistry professor at Rhode Island State College, came aboard as director, and he recruited a young colleague, Alexander Cruickshank, to serve as deputy. In 1968, Cruickshank assumed full charge of the conference series, and it has remained under his leadership ever since.

Although the format of the meetings has stayed the same over the years, GRC's scope is constantly expanding. Originally, the conferences focused predominantly on chemistry, but now the topics spill across disciplines, embracing biology, physics, and even a touch of engineering. A single conference often will spawn one or more offspring as participants' interests diverge or grow more specialized. The meeting on polymers divided and multiplied this way, producing a brood of conferences on such subjects as biopolymers, polymer colloids, and polymers for biosystems. Overall, GRC administers a program of about 310 symposia, but the exact schedule changes from year to year. Some conferences meet annually, while others convene less frequently and some get discontinued altogether. These decisions are made by GRC's selection and scheduling committee, which reviews every conference that runs under Gordon auspices. It's also the committee's responsibility to consider proposals from scientists for conferences on new topics.

This continual process of evaluation and reappraisal is GRC's way of ensuring that as science marches onward, the conferences will keep in step. In fact, some scientists even see GRC as bellwether of progress. "Perusing the topics [of the conferences] is as good a way as any of seeing what the hot topics are in different fields," Nicholson says.

GRC demonstrated its willingness last year to venture into new geographical territory when it staged its first two European meetings in Volterra, Italy. In 1991, GRC is sponsoring one meeting in Italy this month and a second pair in Germany during the fall. As long as the Gordon Research Conferences continue to provide participants with an open forum to address critical issues, their importance will be assured well into their seventh decade and beyond. "It's the type of meeting where science really gets done," says Mandich. "It's a chance to see what's going on at the forefront of your field. You're really carving out the future of your research."

For more information, contact Alexander Cruickshank, Gordon Research Conferences, Gordon Research Center, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R.I. 02881-0801;
(401) 783-4011/3372.

Jeff Seiken is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.