It’s not too often that we attend a conference year after year and see a noticeable difference or improvement. Settling into a rhythm, conferences often follow the same schedule, panel demographics, and topic coverage. This was not the case with CRISPRcon.
A number of visible changes to the event’s format and content helped shake up the tone of the event, energizing participants to continue this conversation with their local communities. Here are some changes that stood out to me.
- Flash talks & roundtables: The most noticeable change to CRISPRcon’s schedule was the introduction of “flash talks.” When a conference brings together priests, professors, high schoolers, and farmers, the audience varies widely in background knowledge. Short presentations by young scientists provided a means to expose everyone to the latest genome editing technologies and applications. The conference also offered marketplace-style roundtable discussions. This breakout session was designed for deeper dives into specific questions and topics.
- Young voices: Young people were more prominently represented in Boston than at the first event in Berkeley. This is due in part to the attendance of high school students from the Boston Latin Academy. These students were impressively engaged, and their questions and input reflected fresh perspectives. Panel member Taylor Kane of Remember the Girls also brought an essential youth perspective, representing people carrying and living with genetic diseases. Her voice echoed those looking for treatments to life-threatening ailments.
- Panel reorganization: The inaugural CRISPRcon organized panels into defined topic areas (conservation, genetic diseases, etc.). Within this structure, panels often had strong pro- and anti-voices present. For CRISPRcon 2018, the panel topics felt more openly defined (democratization, trust, etc.). This format led to a wider representation of fields within the same panel. The panel discussions did not feel like a two-sided, pro- and anti-debate, but rather a nuanced conversation around a central theme.
As participants filed out of the Boston World Trade Center at the end of the conference, murmurs filled the lobby. Which city would host the next conference? What new panels should be added? CRISPRcon’s steering committee clearly listened to feedback after the first conference, so let me offer up some suggestions for the third installment.
- Location: A logical next step would be to bring this discussion overseas. The ethical, regulatory, and societal impacts of gene editing are inherently international. Every panel, regardless of topic, stressed the importance of a global conversation, making it clear that CRISPRcon must go abroad. One quality that makes CRISPRcon unique is its goal to include the public in the two-day event, and “public” must include more than Berkeley and Boston residents. Stay tuned for the location of CRISPRcon 2019!
- New voices: Regulators and policy-makers are a key demographic to include in these discussions, but were clearly not well-represented this year. A poll taken at the start of the conference showed that under 5% of attendees fit into this category. Since a majority of the panels touched on regulation and oversight, the next CRISPRcon must make an effort to include these voices, both to inform the audience about current policy and to hear what other stakeholders have to say.
- Priming resources: A simple yet effective addition to next year’s meeting would be a curated set of educational materials for conference attendees. Flash talks were a great first step, but in order to bring physicians, pastors, youth, and farmers all up to speed on the latest technological advancements, an assortment of videos, articles, graphics, and podcasts should be provided ahead of time.
For some nice external coverage of CRISPRcon, check out the articles below:
Crispr Fans Fight for Egalitarian Access to Gene Editing
Wired | Megan Molteni | June 6, 2018
At CRISPRcon, an Organic Luminary Embraces Gene Editing. Will the Industry Follow?
The New Food Economy | Sam Bloch | June 6, 2018
A CRISPR Pioneer on Gene Editing: ‘We Shouldn’t Screw It Up’
The Atlantic | Sarah Zhang | June 7, 2018