Pushing for engaging formats in global health conferences: Liverpool, are you ready?

On Sunday, 29th October, Shakira Choonara (Emerging Voice 2014), did something most unusual at the opening plenary of the Canadian Conference for Global Health organized by CSIH in Ottawa. She blindfolded the (very eminent) panellists, to spark discussion around what it means to be “left behind”. In her characteristic style bringing together personal experience with professional interest, peppered with good humour, Shakira’s opening was powerful, incisive and fun! In the midst of the flourishing industry of global health conferences these days, it was a refreshing alternative to the usual speeches and PowerPoints that we are subject to, and we wish we saw more of it. So through this blog, we reflect upon the formats of discussion in academic conferences, and propose the use of diverse, interactive methodologies.

The Health Systems Global (HSG) symposia have, in the past, tried to experiment with formats, and we hope to see more of this in the upcoming symposium. And where better to start than in Liverpool – a city of social activists, labour supporters, and individuals dedicated to social change and the host of HSG 2018.

Before you dismiss our demand for more “fun” at conferences as the frivolity of young people (as some rightly might), hear us out. Typically, global health conferences kick off with keynotes and plenaries, followed by innumerable parallel thematic sessions with 4 or 5 presentations each (requiring conference participants to split into multiple holograms if they wanted to attend all the sessions they were interested in). While traditional PowerPoint presentations allow scholars to present their research in neatly-packaged 10-minute bundles, they tend to be one way conversations, leaving little time for delving into the “so what” – undoubtedly the most important part. Rarely does the allocated 30 mins of Q&A ever take place, and one is left with an overload of information, pending questions and a whole lot of frustration. Panel chairs, whose role is to foster debate and discussion by drawing out themes and key messages across presentations, are typically reduced to “introducers”. Partly this is due to over-loading sessions with presentations, but it is imperative to ask: is back-to-back presentations truly the best way of advancing our understanding and fostering discussion?

Incidentally, this is not a new concern, and global health conferences can draw on experiences from other fields. Questioning the effectiveness of conventional formats is what gave birth to the “Unconference” – a participant-driven gathering that originated in the tech world, and which has resulted in the development of several participatory methodologies. Over the past 7 years, the Emerging Voices for Global Health programme has drawn on some of these to push young researchers to change how we present our research findings. The Fishbowl discussion, for instance, in which speakers rotate and are replaced by audience members, is a format that blurs the boundaries between speaker and audience, thereby allowing for greater participation and richer discussion. The PechaKucha allows 20 slides to be shown for 20 seconds each, prompting quick and concise presentations that focus on the central themes of the work, and leaving time for reactions and discussion.

At the 10th Eurpoean Congress on Tropical Medicine and International Health, the Emerging Voices (EVs) held a session in the form of a debate on whether health systems researchers are too focussed on evidence and do not engage sufficiently with political and social realities to be able to influence policy effectively. One would imagine that there was little to disagree with, but armed with knowledge of logical fallacies and debating skills (hat tip to EV 2010 Raoul Bermejo for his excellent instruction in Vancouver) the debaters on both “sides” argued boldly and provocatively. Some even began to behave like populist politicians. #EVHotDebates complimented the session and generated its own momentum on twitter. The session exposed diverse perspectives on political engagement, as well as the tensions between researchers in different locations on whether science should wet its feet in the murky waters of politics.

A session at the European Congress of Tropical Medicine and International Health, was organized by the Emerging Voices for Global Health in the format of a debate.

Debates such as these force us to draw out the essence of our argument, while using evidence to buttress our claims.

Perhaps it is time we begin to think more seriously about which format suits the nature of discussion that the session is seeking to spark. For instance, a debate could help bring out different views on different methodologies of approaching a certain issue. If we were trying to explore nuances of a proposed new intervention, a fishbowl format might be more suitable. A deliberate thinking through of formats has the potential to make discussions more substantive, focussing on research methods and data where required, but also allows us to interrogate underpinning ideas, philosophies and ultimately implications of the research that we present.

Academic conferences and symposia have the potential to become spaces that advance our understanding and shape the discourse on global health. Researchers of all stripes use these spaces to share their work, learn about the work of others, meet new people and renew old contacts. However, there is a valid critique of how useful these gatherings really are, given their cost, and who is excluded. For example, “manels” at conferences are being called out (as they were at HSR 2016), but one still sees sessions dominated by representatives from the global north. In this vein, it is important to deliberately evaluate the balance of representation in terms of gender, age, race, (dis)ability, ethnicity and region. A diversity of profiles in panels – such as researchers, policy makers, journalists, activists and so on – would also make discussions more interesting.

As preparations for Liverpool are under way, it is imperative that we consider how we can make conferences more accessible, inclusive, and meaningful. The objective of diversifying and increasing interaction in conference presentations is not just to break monotony, but to push discussions forward by providing space for challenging ideas and propose new ones. Can we hope then, to capitalise on the spirit of Liverpool city, and see more innovative and engaging formats of academic discussion at Liverpool? After all, who wouldn’t want to participate in a fishbowl discussion on the pros and cons of performance based financing, or witness a plenary debate on whether philanthro-capitalism is good for global health?

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