The Scientific Factory Myth

I recently participated on the III Congress of Engineering, Science and Technology at my University with a paper on Free Software. The attendance to the event in general was quite low, not to mention there wasn't anybody on our presentation of the paper at the beginning (some people with possibly no knowledge of sciences whatsoever eventually came). I was pretty upset because of the fact that we had a message to send through our paper and it really didn't get through simply because there was not a single important scientist in that room.

But of course, I had to find who to blame for that, even if at the end of my reasoning I found out that it was all my fault. The first question I asked was "why wasn't anybody there in my presentation?". The first obvious answer was that it wasn't interesting at all, and that could make sense if it wasn't for the fact that after I finished, I talked to a few people that told me they wanted to go to the presentation but were stuck at another presentation that took longer than what they expected. I myself attended to the CERMA 2008 IEEE Conference at Mexico last year and despite of the fact that most of the topics looked interesting to me, the average number of people per presentation was around 10, which is not a huge number, but it at least remained constant throughout the event.

So I could ask another wider question: "why was it that the global attendance was low?". I checked the titles of other presentations and most of them didn't seem too much of scientific to me (although there were a couple of presentations on interesting topics of Applied Mathematics like Fluid Dynamics) but nevertheless, they were still topics to be heard, so I couldn't really blame the topic set. Then what failed?

Looking at an even wider range, and summing up some other facts like an extremely poor organization of the paper submission process (there were lots of bizarre stuff like presentations that were listed on the schedule whose papers weren't yet submitted to the organization of the event),  poor standards for paper submission, not enough papers to fulfill the advertised quota of 150 presentations, and a pretty bad advertisement of the event inside the University,  I could ask another question: "why was it that this event at the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá failed?".

I found out that that last question was the key question of all. I could even ask in general "why is it that any scientific event inside my University fails?" (that would include talks on robotics, programming contests like one we organized last year, talks given by PhDs that would visit our Univesrity, etc.) and there was a pretty simple and logic answer for that: We are not taught to be interested in scientific topics at all. From day 0 of our careers, there's a full emphasis on the market standards and almost zero interest on research. Most of our professors, at least in the Computer Systems Faculty, know nothing about the market standards anyways, and even less about research. Most of them have not participated actively in any research project, and don't even belong to any known research institution. Since they can't teach about the things they have never heard about, most of the students never hear about paper submissions and research results, so they won't be interested in any scientific event on earth or outside of it (they wouldn't even care about a solar eclipse, so I'm not kidding). So how did my University expected to have a successful scientific event while students aren't getting any scientific information and are instead flooded with crappy information about ever-changing market trends? Did they really think they had a scientific factory from where they could generate scientists and use them to fill up 150 presentations for the Congress? Evidently, they didn't.

And before you tell me "it would be worst if they didn't do anything at all", well, I'd say the worst thing that could happen is my University not learning from their mistakes, and frankly, they don't seem to be learning at all: I have seen nothing but congratulation e-mails between organizers and participants, and no one so far has proposed a public systematic plan to face next year's Congress with a little more dignity. I hope I'm wrong, but if they think they can go on organizing scientific congresses without having a solid research base inside the institution, they'll soon find out there's no way to create scientists out of the sudden, and sooner or later all of their events will be deemed as phony to the Scientific Community.