BBOCS is dead, Long Live QACS? A Brisbane #ozchem conference gets borged

A couple of weeks ago I learned that the Brisbane Biological and Organic Chemistry Symposium (BBOCS) is being discontinued.


First flyer for Inaugural QACS Conference: Source: Queensland RACI Branch Newsletter

In it’s place in 2016 there will be held the inaugural Qld Annual Chemistry Symposium (QACS). This symposium will be substantially expanded from previous years and will include Inorganic, Polymer, Analytical and Environmental chemistry sessions running concurrently. Previously these other subdisciplines have had their own one-day symposia in late November/early December.

Importantly, the symposium is being promoted by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, which previously had been partially semi in-charge of BBOCS. I have mixed emotions about this change. Let me explain.

(Full disclosure: I was on the organising committee for BBOCS when our group at IMB hosted in 2001 and 2007. )

BBOCS evolved from the old Organic-only BOCS symposia and I can see the reasons for making it a bigger conference style day where there are multiple concurrent sessions. BBOCS was always a bit of an ad-hoc affair with a rough rotation system of the three main universities in SE Queensland rotating hosting duties among the various chemistry departments and the research institutes. Let’s just say that in some years there was less input asked for or given by the RACI and some organising committees did their own thing in terms of arranging the remainder of the program, whether there would be poster sessions or not, whether alcohol would be served afterwards or not, and what prices would be charged. In years when the RACI was heavily involved, a strict tiered pricing structure required centrally by the RACI was used. Typically there would be Member and non-member pricing at around the $45/$65 mark for non-students, and $20/$30 for students. There were also restrictions placed on how sponsors were sought, and how sponsors dollars went into RACI bank accounts and were dispersed when required. Often, when the research Institutes hosted the event we charged a lower flat rate for entry, went after more sponsor dollars to cover the difference, and used our own banking arrangements to collect registration fees. This lead to some disquiet within the RACI and on one occasion a snarky one-liner in an issue of the RACI magazine, Chemistry in Australia, that a summary of the symposium could not be provided in the annual report along the lines of  “The RACI had no involvement in the running of the conference this year”. In some years, the organising of the event was a bit of a last-minute affair and in one case it was cancelled altogether. It is to be hoped that bringing all the disciplines together and formally running it as an RACI event may finally lead to a more permanent and settled format.

For many young and aspiring chemists, particularly honours students the local symposia were an ideal introduction to scientific conferences. They were small, they were short, and importantly gave students a glimpse into what other research was out there. Coming as it did towards the end of the calendar year, when most of the pressure on honours students was off it gave students a chance to shop around locally, out of their one-year bubble, for possible postgraduate research and potential supervisors. The invited, usually overseas plenary speakers also gave postgraduate students a chance to look a bit further afield, perhaps towards a future postdoctoral position

It is not yet clear who will be the plenary lecturers at this years symposium. BBOCS has had a troubled past in with invited speakers suffering from a very poor gender ratio. I have previously blogged on this subject so will not elaborate here. I encourage you to read that earlier piece but suffice it to say the local Brisbane organising committees had no say in the speakers provided nationally by the RACI, but selected by the Victorian branch of the Organic Chemistry division.

BBOCS Plenary Lecturer Gender ratio 2001-2014

BBOCS Plenary Lecturer Gender ratio 2001-2014

But why merge the symposia at all? As recently as last year, the RACI held it’s own medicinal-chemistry one day conference, held a few months before, and almost certainly in competition with BBOCS, removing the incentive for people to go to a second biological chemistry conference a couple of months later.

Why has the strategy now changed to running a combined event? Perhaps there are costs to be shared by holding all the local events together in one go. There is no denying that funds are tight in many chemistry departments, but I see a major problem in going down this path. If this is to be an annual event, will it not be in major competition to the RACI national conferences, especially next year in the RACI’s centenary when a major conference is being held in Melbourne in July (2017).* Will cash-strapped research groups be able to justify sending their students and postdocs to two generalist conferences in Australia in one year, in addition to funding travel to any overseas conferences?

It remains to be seen whether this new event, supplanting the sometimes chaotic, but well-loved and attended BBOCS is well received. A good start would be to get the invited speaker list out NOW, and make sure it has a better diversity profile than in the past, including the RACI’s own medchem conference Brisbane last year which had no women plenary lecturers. An a clear statement on the conference website (there isn’t one at present) detailing their diversity policy would be a good step too. As always, please send me suggestions either here, if the comments are working, or on Twitter @MartinStoermer.

 *Previous version of this post incorrectly said Adelaide. Whoops.

About martin

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