Value of Attendance of Scientists and Engineers at Scientific/Engineering Conferences:
Motivation and Recognition Factor

Prepared by

Thomas E. Clarke, M.Sc., M.B.A.

Stargate Consultants Limited

July 8, 1996


"Technical professionals need special handling. Management strategies that motivate other employees to produce their best work often bring out the worst in these highly skilled and specialized people" - Geraci (1994)

Encouraging and facilitating the attendance of scientists and engineers at national and international conferences has considerable benefit for science or engineering based organizations. Rarely does one managerial action have the potential for payoff in three different areas of value to an employer.

The major payoffs of conference attendance are:

While the focus of this paper is on the last payoff, a short elaboration of the first two benefits of conference attendance are provided.

Keeping Abreast of their Field

A unique feature of R&D is the rapid pace of change that many scientific fields exhibit. In the areas of electronics, computer science, material science and biotechnology the "leading edge" of the fields are moving ahead at a very fast pace. Technological obsolescence is a constant fear of dedicated scientists or engineers.

As a result, keeping up-to-date is very time-consuming for the scientist or research engineer who wishes to contribute to the advancement of science or technology. A major tool in keeping technological obsolescence at bay is conference or workshop attendance. Much can be learned about research-in-progress or where the "leading edge" is in a line of research through casual conversations with attendees.

In many cases work being presented at the conference will not appear in any open journal publication for up to 6-18 months. Information about new research analysis techniques may never appear in any publication and so conferences may be a very important source of this category of information. It is now accepted, as fact, that the most efficient vehicle for the transfer of technical knowledge is face-to-face contact. Thus conferences/workshops are very cost effective as large numbers of colleagues can be reached at a single meeting.

A side benefit of conference attendance is to show newly graduated researchers what constitutes state-of-the-art research. It gives them some insight into quality research as judged by their peers.

Research Project/Program Identification and Selection

Conference attendance can also play an important role in identifying research areas to explore, or to avoid. Information about research "dead-ends" is rarely communicated through publications but can be obtained during conversations with colleagues at conferences. The formal presentations or the more informal conversations with attendees may reveal interesting areas of research which the attendees' laboratory my wish to pursue.

In their review of how to foster creativity and innovation in a laboratory, Westwood and Sekine (1988) recommend that scientists should be encouraged to acquire and exchange knowledge by, for example, attendance at conferences. "One cannot predict where the next good idea will come from, but its generation is likely to be stimulated by a non-routine situation" such as conference attendance.

Identification of Clients or Collaborators

Given the pressure on government scientists and engineers to bring in revenue for their laboratories and/or be more relevant to their economy, conference attendance is an excellent mechanism for identifying either prospective paying clients for the laboratory, or future collaborators.

By being attentive for commercial opportunities, scientists or engineers may learn of problems being experienced by firms trying to develop new products or processes. The research problems posed may be ones which are within the government laboratories field of expertise thus a potential source of research revenue.

Collaborative opportunities may arise if the government scientist learns of company research efforts that complements their own areas of research interest. These opportunities for collaborative research could extend the research resources of both parties.

Motivation and Recognition

A first class research laboratory actively fosters creativity and productivity among its professional technical staff; it is not left to chance. A major tool for accomplishing this is the motivational needs of its staff. Simply put, effective R&D managers ensure that meeting organizational requirements results in the creative scientist or engineer satisfying his or her psychological needs. One of the main needs associated with research scientists or engineers is the need for recognition and approval by peers.

Psychological theory shows that many research scientists and engineers seek that recognition and praise, not from immediate supervisors or colleagues, but from peers in the scientific or engineering community at large.

Thus the ability to present their work to their national and/or international peers and gain praise and recognition, is a powerful motivator for many scientists and research engineers. Conference attendance facilitates the satisfaction of this need by putting the scientist or engineer in face-to-face contact with his or her external peers. In addition, conference attendance has the advantage of providing immediate feedback to the researcher.

Attendance at conferences also affirms to the world that the researcher is still "in the game", even if he or she is not presenting a paper at that time. Being able to interact with their national and international colleagues can reinforce their determination to be the best in their field.

Treasury Board Policy on Conference Attendance

The present Treasury Board policy limiting the number of scientists or engineers attending any one conference from a department results from fear of questions being asked in the House of Commons about public servant travel to conferences.

It is based on the unfounded expectation that the Canadian public cannot discern the difference between scientist attending a scientific conference and politicians going off to some exotic locale in the middle of a Canadian winter just to get away from the cold. In the past newspapers have documented numerous wastes of taxpayers money by politicians or senior bureaucrats abusing their authority.

Clearly, Treasury Board views conference attendance as simply a perk or a reward for past performance, not a means by which creative performance can be both maintained and enhanced in the future. This limited perception of conference attendance puts it in the category of "nice to have" but not "necessary". This is a dangerously ignorant perception.

As a result, Treasury Board has developed arbitrary restrictions on public servant conference attendance, instead of letting the R&D managers manage their conference budgets like any other expenditure. The restriction, in fact, does not allow the R&D managers to be effective as managers.

Many requests to Treasury Board to drop this restrictive conference attendance policy have been met with the argument that they don't want any embarrassing questions raised in the House of Commons. This is "management by cowardice". Instead of being prepared to argue the considerable merits of conference attendance for scientific staff, they would rather hide behind a policy that applies to all public servants whose future performance is not so dependent on keeping up-to-date and having the recognition of national and international peers.

The Treasury Board policy encourages technical obsolescence, reduces the opportunities for revenue generation, and lowers the morale and hence the productivity and creativity of the scientific and engineering staff in Canadian government laboratories. Many departments, in order to work around the policy have taken the position that all conference attendance is "training and development" and therefore not subject to the restrictions. Some, however, have not taken that approach with the result that the morale in their departments have suffered serious decline.


CONCLUSION

The present Treasury Board policy that limits the number of scientists or engineers attending a conference from one department is counterproductive to the fostering of a productive, creative work environment in government laboratories.

It does not save taxpayer's money, but contributes to the waste of taxpayers money by destroying a laboratory's ability to perform first class, leading edge, research, and to answer technical problems in a timely, cost-effective manner.

The policy should be abandoned immediately, if the Treasury Board truly wants to encourage first-class research and encourage government laboratories to have highly motivated, up-to-date, creative researchers capable of responding to the scientific and technical needs of Canada.


REFERENCES

Geraci, John, "Real Managers Don't Boss", Research-Technology Management, Vol. 37, No. 6, November-December, 1994, pp. 12-13

Westwood, Albert R.C. and Sekine, Yukiko, "Fostering Creativity and Innovation in an Industrial R&D Laboratory", Research-Technology Management, Vol. 31, No. 4, July-August, 1988, pp. 16-20

 

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