Having previously never attended a tropical medicine conference, I was equal parts excited and apprehensive about ECTMIH. I wondered if I would find anything to suit my non-clinical, non-biomedical interests, and yes, I admit I was being a bit finicky, seeing as the congress was supposed to be focusing on tropical Medicine. Anyway, it turns out my fears were unfounded as I found a variety of sessions that appealed to me. I immediately picked out the debates, because as an avid ex-debater myself, and someone who studied in the post-colonial school system of Nigeria (modelled after the British system), I always look forward to the fiery exchange of views that takes place in these sessions.
The attempts to discredit the other side by finding weaknesses and poking holes in their arguments, efforts to convince the audience of the strength of one’s arguments, and the theatrical delivery of lines that is done with the sole aim of wooing the crowd make debates such fun! In the end, I attended 2; the Emerging Voices (EV) session which was a debate on whether Health Policy and Systems Researchers were doing enough to facilitate the transformation of political commitments into better health systems, and the Journalism one which was a panel debate on whether journalists and scientists are failing Global Health.
Well I can tell you that each session was “British” in its own way. The journalism session was staid and a bit humdrum, with a lot of polite to-ing and fro-ing and consensus seeking. Andrew Jack, the moderator from the Financial Times, tried hard to stir things up by asking some “controversial” questions, but the poor man struggled to keep the momentum going. He had been dealt a bad hand in a panel which included a lady from the European Commission who stuck to the official line and kept things polite and….superficial, and a scientist from ITM who was a bit too calm and restrained for my personal tastes. Thankfully, the other panellists were two journalists who, perhaps because of their jobs, were more vocal with voicing their opinions. I was particularly impressed by Serusha Govender, a freelance journalist from South Africa and the current ITM Journalist-in-residence. She had no qualms about talking about her experience and how the working relationship between journalists and researchers could be improved to enhance global health. She was honest, funny and very engaging, and it was thought-provoking for me, a budding researcher, to hear about the role good communication plays in the transfer of information between scientists, journalists and policy-makers.
The EVs on the other hand were amazing! I don’t know if it’s because the participants were younger and had more activist profiles, or because as a colleague pointed out, many were from ex-British colonies with debating traditions, but the session was very stimulating. I am being, perhaps, a little unfair here, because the journalism session had a different format, but the truth is that I preferred the EV session by a long shot. At one point, I looked around and noticed members of the audience laughing, nodding in agreement and participating with questions and commentary. They were being educated and entertained at the same time – no mean feat!
Two very different experiences, but they convinced me of the importance of this type of sessions in conferences which still follow the traditional style of one presenter talking at a room full of half-bored people who are really just there for the networking opportunities. It is unfortunate that not more of these sessions are included in conference programmes, because both sessions (yes, even the more boring one!), showed me that spirited debates can spice up bland conferences and keep audiences “woke”. I really hope the format is replicated at the next ECTMIH and in other conferences – hint, hint, organisers of the next global HSR symposium in Liverpool…. Fingers crossed the conference Gods are listening!