Busan shows a new way to create a successful workshop

I recently attended 4 overseas meetings in the span of 2 weeks (12th to 23rd of October 2017).  These were Climate Variability and Air-Sea Interaction Conference at the National Taiwan University in Taipei, ENSO Complexity workshop at ICCP in Busan, South Korea, 12th CLIVAR Pacific Region Panel meeting in Busan, and the International Symposium on Banda Sea Ecosystem in Jakarta.  As you can probably appreciate, it was quite a tiring travel, with airport transport transfers at odd hours and jet lags on top of the intense scientific discussions and presentations.  Nonetheless, they were all great, informative, and productive meetings.

But I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on the Busan ENSO Complexity Workshop, as I (and many, if not all, other participants) thought that it was a particularly successful workshop.   I will tell you why it was successful.

View from the workshop window. 

The five-day workshop in Busan was attended by about 40 international and local participants.  Australian researchers from CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, Monash University, and UNSW made up a quarter of the attendance list.  The rest include ENSO researchers from France, UK, USA, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Peru.  The workshop program was unique.  The first two days were the typical conference-style presentations which discussed the latest scientific results, issues, and advances on various aspects of ENSO: predictability, greenhouse warming, decadal changes, event diversity, super El Nino mechanisms, the 2015/16 El Nino, etc.

From the third day onward though, there were still a few talks but only in the first half of the morning.  The rest of the day, all of the participants were divided into six groups and assigned into six separate rooms to work on specific sections that would make up a review paper. The section assignment was already made in advance before the start of the workshop, and we already had a draft of the paper to work on which was prepared by the lead authors of each section.

Having a draft prepared was certainly helpful, but it was far from easy as there were a lot of back-and-forth arguments going on in each room, to ensure the accuracy of every single sentence and to ensure that the review paper captured the best possible representation of the current state of knowledge.  As a result, several parts of the report had to be rewritten or restructured.  It was a great exercise, with healthy debates, and it was in fact an excellent way to interact among scientists to develop professional cohesiveness.

At the end of the day, everybody returned to the main room to discuss issues that were raised during each of the sections which needed to be addressed by the entire participants.  And of course, the paper needed figures that accompanied the section.  Thus, some of the participants were assigned to analyse data and produce plots which were thoroughly discussed by the whole team.  It was hard work!

The review paper addresses ENSO complexity which is also the theme of the workshop.  ENSO is a complex phenomenon, and it has taken the scientific community several decades to better understand how it works.  The workshop provided an opportunity for the researchers to first present their work and then get together to reconcile ideas as to identify gaps and issues toward a final product that they and the wider community will be pleased with, that is, a review paper that was submitted to the journal of Nature.

It was this common goal, the entire writing exercise, and format of the workshop that made the event really successful.   Certainly, a great leadership was needed to guide the discussions on the right path, and a great organising team to put the event together.  The nice venue also helped.  The Pusan National University is a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains, boutique shops and rows of interesting restaurants.   The locals were friendly even though they do not speak any English.  But this kind of aspect helped to keep the participants in a good spirit.

This workshop was probably the first of the kind that involved very active writing sessions that resulted in a truly community-based review paper.  This could perhaps be a model for future workshops.

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