Yesterday I attended a cancer research symposium at a major medical school. There were about 100 scientists in attendance; probably 85-90 young scientists (post docs, graduate students, etc.) and about 10-15 senior faculty. 85-90% of the questions and interactions came from those 10-15 senior faculty. Certainly some of this was shyness, but the opacity of the talks also contributed. Only scientists who had followed these fields for a long time could follow the talks. The speakers made no effort to tailor the talk to the bulk of the audience.
Not only is this a comment on presentation quality, it is also a comment on the lack of planning and foresight typical of many biomedical research symposia. Did the conference planners expect that most of the attendees would be young scientists? Is that what they wanted to happen? If so, did they inform the speakers? If so, did the speakers tailor their talks to the expected audience? Probably none of this occurred.
Now getting young scientists to speak up when more senior scientists are in the room is a tough problem, but if young scientists are the audience, leaders need to work on this problem. Otherwise why have a conference if it doesn't meet the needs of the audience? Beside, if you can "break the ice" early, virtually everyone will feel more comfortable and engaged. How about demanding senior faculty attend the poster sessions and pose questions to the young scientists? How about having a series of 5 minute "blitz briefings"by the young scientists, getting as many on the stage as possible.? How about breakout sessions where young scientists are pre-assigned major roles?
There may be many better ideas, but the key point when planning a conference is to figure out who it is for and then structure the conference to best inform that audience. This may take some additional work and some creativity, but without making that investment, we are wasting a lost of time for a lot of people.