87 A Look Into ELSI's Kitchen

A few weeks ago ELSI PI Piet Hut looked back on the 3rd ELSI Symposium, held 13-15 January on our main campus in Tokyo. For our guests, the goal is simply to make their visits as simple, smooth, and pleasant as possible so that they can focus on scientific interactions. Each year we begin with the ambitious goal of making our symposium the best scientific conference our guests will attend...intellectually stimulating, meticulously organized, highly productive, with some quality time in Tokyo sprinkled on top. I was pleased to hear from many of our guests that we have achieved our aims, although the year is quite young and I will have to ask them next year if this was indeed the best scientific conference they attended in 2015. Many also wondered what kind of effort is required behind the scenes to make something like this happen, and I kept my brief answer simple: "our staff." Now that the symposium has passed, our guests have returned home, and the dust has settled a bit, I thought it might be a nice opportunity to write a little more about what it takes to manage an event of this scale every year, and most especially about the amazing people who make it happen.

First, I should explain why we hold these annual symposia and go to such extensive efforts to bring so many guests from around the world. These are no ordinary guests, they are world leaders in ELSI-related fields of research, and many are close colleagues of ELSI scientists. In addition to inviting our senior colleagues, we also invite their students to attend, giving us a chance to meet future scientific leaders and invite them to become part of the ELSI family. Special things happen when you bring together a special mixture of people, just like mixing the right chemical compounds into a laboratory beaker. New ideas are nucleated, new collaborations formed, new fields of research are spawned, and a new intellectual life form is born...one that can be nurtured, cultivated, and eventually advance the frontier of understanding. This is the essence of scientific progress. There are dozens of fun examples to share, but detailing all of this activity will have to wait for another blog. (Just today I learned of another great example: a paper to appear soon in the journal Nature Geoscience on habitable planets near M dwarf stars authored by one of our ELSI PIs and a keynote speaker from the 2nd Symposium, the idea grew directly from one of the many open discussions during that event.) Now, let's take a look behind the curtains...

The ELSI Symposium is managed by the ELSI Research Interactions Committee (RIC), which also oversees other ELSI workshops and events, in addition to our visitor program. The RIC is one of the smoothest, most efficient, and well-oiled operations in our institute. But setting this up required a high degree of patience, open-mindedness, flexibility, and collegiality. In fact, I was not an original member of this committee, and joined more than half a year after its inception. Earlier efforts by the original RIC Chairs Piet Hut and Daisuke Kiga, with the help of members Jun Makino, Hanako Ricciardi, Asako Sato, Yuichiro Ueno, Yuko Sasaki, Yuka Fujii, Masashi Aono, and Hidenori Genda, were essential to establish a smooth operating procedure in which efficiency was facilitated by prior establishment of a common understanding of simple policies, procedures, and chain of responsibilities. It is exactly the kind of committee organization that, once it is up and running, no longer requires a great deal of effort, almost no meetings, and just a trickle of e-mails to peruse. This is the very best kind of committee and I am extremely grateful for the developmental efforts that preceded my arrival.

For each symposium, the RIC designates both a Scientific Organizing Committee (SOC) and Local Organizing Committee (LOC), and these are treated as ad hoc sub-committees of the RIC. Both the SOC and LOC have a chairperson (who is responsible for reporting to the RIC), as well as several members (the number is dictated by need). This level of delegation is important both to share responsibility for running such a large event among a larger group of members in addition to giving more members the opportunity to contribute (as well as instilling a sense of communal ownership and care for the symposium in our members). The symposium budget is estimated and allocated by the RIC from its annual funds, our typical expenditures for a single symposium exceed JPY10M. Requests for small budget increases or changes are then coordinated by staff and the RIC Chair, mostly as estimated expenses coalesce into hard numbers as purchases are executed or new items come up that were not previously considered.

Much of the symposium organization described above is not very dissimilar to the organizational structure of many other kinds of meetings or conferences, and it clearly takes more than just this solid foundation to produce the very best meeting experience for our guests. Organization is an important starting point, but the formulation and execution of a plan to produce a meeting of outstanding quality comes primarily from the people who actually make it happen. It begins with the preparations to design a coherent program, which is the responsibility of the SOC. This year the SOC was chaired by Piet Hut, and co-chaired by Yuka Fujii, Hidenori Genda, Jun Kimura, and Nathaniel Virgo.

The scientific program is given a wide degree of flexibility at each symposium, however, we have several key points of emphasis that we believe are important to enhance the experience of our guests. Very often we have heard complaints at other meetings that the program was choked with monologues, and not enough time was available for dialogues. Listening to a continuous stream of speakers packed into an air tight schedule invokes "meeting fatigue." Furthermore, a program filled from front to back with nothing but talks very often does not run on schedule. Many of us have been to meetings where the morning session runs past schedule and encroaches into lunch time, everybody grows irritable and hungry, and is then forced to eat lunch in a hurry to make it back in time for the afternoon sessions. This is simply unacceptable. For the ELSI Symposium, we are dedicated to giving 1/3 to 1/2 of the meeting time to discussions (both question and answer periods, in addition to panel discussions). We are also dedicated to staying precisely on schedule, everybody appreciates a predictable and timely program.

At ELSI the most special touch comes from the hands of our secretarial and administrative staff. They are 99% of the source for elevating our symposia from simply good to extraordinary. Their attention to detail, excellent hospitality, and constant vigilance to ensure that nothing is forgotten makes for a stress-free and streamlined experience for our guests that allows them to focus on science. Alexis Gilbert graciously agreed to chair the LOC for the 3rd Symposium, working closely with ELSI staff to make local preparations. For many attendees, their symposium experience begins with a friendly email from Asako Sato, the Secretary to the Director and the person who is entrusted by the RIC with coordinating the numerous logistics involved with booking travel, hotels, and coordinating the many other details of our guests' stay in Tokyo. Asako is joined by our team of highly skilled ELSI secretaries: Shio Watanabe, Yatomi Matsumoto, and Harumi Tanaka. We also have a veteran team of administrative staff, including Harumasa Ezawa, Yoshi Kobayashi, Saeko Endo, Sachiyo Uchida, Sayaka Price, Reiko Hattori, Naoko Suganuma, and Atsusa Asai, every symposium involves a huge effort from all of them and the symposium would not be possible without their assistance. Our PR Chief Yu Yonehara and PR Assistant Maiko Tajima provide crucial help in making posters to advertise the symposium, to post information on our website, and to record the event for posterity. Working with all of these wonderful ELSI staff members makes running events like the symposium a sincere pleasure.

I would also like to make special mention of ELSI's Computer Network System Manager, Akiyoshi Nouda. At the request of Piet Hut, Nouda-san built a timing light device from scratch that helped to keep the symposium running on schedule. He also takes care of the details of ensuring coupling between the speakers' computers and the projection system, in addition to the microphones and loudspeaker systems. The result is a seamless series of presentations with no technical glitches or other problems that would cause problems for the program and keeping a schedule. His work is greatly appreciated.

I also want to single out Hanako Ricciardi, ELSI's Coordinator for International Affairs, as another amazing member of our staff whose support of RIC activities and the symposium is indispensable. Hanako has a talent for finding and taking care of things that would otherwise slip between the cracks. Whether it is organizing and scheduling visits with important guests, helping us to communicate and break through those "lost in translation" moments, following up with numerous activities, or providing moral support to others around her when things get busy or stressful, she is like the glue that holds the operation together.

Finally, special thanks to the students from Tokyo Tech who help us to set up the event and circulate the microphone to participants during discussions. This year some of them even took time on a holiday to assist us. I want to thank this year's energetic crew: Daiki Ishimoto, Yuuki Kajimoto, Chie Kato, Fumihiro Matsuura, Kaoru Mishima, Yuko Mori, Tarin Nimmanwudipong, Zhang Naizhong, Hikaru Sawada, Hisahiro Ueda, and Yun Zou.

Now we are in the stages of planning the 4th Symposium, to be held on 13-15 January 2016. Hosting these symposia is a never-ending process that requires year-round effort. If you have any comments or suggestions to help us improve this event, please drop us a note and let us know your thoughts, we would be thrilled to hear from you!