Home Science CommunicationCommunity & events A history of science unconferences

A history of science unconferences

by Eva Amsen

At the end of SciBarCamb, just before I completely lost my mind from exhaustion, I gave a talk about science unconferences. It started with a bit of history, and ended with some tips on planning your own. This post covers what I remember talking about in terms of history, and I’ll write up all the specific organisational tips in a separate post for next time.

This is by no means a transcript of the talk. I was not that coherent…


The first science unconference?

In the 1990s, Swiss art curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist co-organised a conference about neuroscience and art. Themed around the brain, the meeting had attracted a line-up of speakers from both scientific and artistic backgrounds. But a few hours before the conference, the organisers completely threw the program of the conference out the window. There would be no talks. Just breaks.
The entire meeting had been reduced to the moments of social interaction that normally occur only in between talks. Later, in an interview with Edge, Obrist pointed out that “…at a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break”. You should read the whole interview, in which he describes why this was the best format for the meeting he was organising. He calls the event a “non-conference”, but it is quite similar to what we understand an “unconference” to be: a meeting without a fixed program. All he did was provide a location for people to get together.


Casual science conversations in history

There are no restrictions to places where you can talk about research. We’ve come to think of the default conference venue – with its seminar rooms and poster halls – as the place where people share their thoughts and findings. But if you think back to where some well-known scientific discoveries were announced, that wasn’t always the case. Archimedes announced the discovery of measuring volume by water displacement in the middle of the street.

Of course the story of Archimedes is just famous for what he was (not) wearing, but there are other, more recent examples. In 1953, Francis Crick famously announced “We have discovered the secret of life”, not at a conference, but in The Eagle pub in Cambridge. In “The Double Helix”, James Watson recounts this incident only with the remark that he wished that Crick hadn’t done that: they were directly competing with Linus Pauling at Caltech, who was also close to finding the structure of DNA. Crick announcing that they found it in such an unscientific, uncontrolled venue as a pub could potentially have gotten them scooped.

Science unconferences and fear of scooping

This highlights one of the main drawbacks of holding unconferences in science: people are not comfortable sharing unpublished work in a setting that doesn’t have their talk officially listed with an abstract, and where all kinds of people from other fields are in attendance.

That is probably also one of the reasons why you don’t really see people talk in depth about their research at SciBarCamb or other science unconferences. They will show what tools they’ve developed, and use the platform to share side projects that don’t fit the regular scientific meetings they attend, but they won’t tell you what results they had last week, because that can cost them their funding. There might be ways to organise field-specific unconferences, but then you quickly veer into regular meeting/workshop territory, and it would not be as accessible as most unconferences.
In the next part of the talk I went into the history and etymology of SciBarCamb, but I explained that in previous posts, so I won’t go over it again here.

The last part of the session were practical tips for organising SciBarCamps, and they’ll get their own post, because I think that’s going to be something people want to read without having to scroll past all the history.

Related Articles


Eva Amsen April 18, 2011 - 11:48 PM

And that Obrist quote about coffee breaks, I have it *everywhere*. It’s on my Facebook profile and I’ve used it in official work settings. To me, it’s such an obvious truth, and applicable to so many things I care about. I need to do some art with it, probably.

Cath Ennis April 20, 2011 - 8:48 PM

I’m looking forward to the organisational tips post! I’d love to go to a sciency unconference, but there never seem to be any happening anywhere near where I live (remember when I contemplated flying to Toronto – 5 hours each way – to go to one of yours?!). I wouldn’t want to attempt to organise an unconference without having been to one first, but I do appreciate that if everyone keeps thinking that, I’ll never get to go to one!

Eva Amsen April 20, 2011 - 11:37 PM

 I’m working on that, but I’m finding it hard to step back and be useful and informative. I tend to talk about specific things that I did. Not useful. It needs severe editing still.

Comments are closed.