How is our Gradschool Conference Funded?

[Update 03/12/14: 2014 data here: https://vitaminccs.wordpress.com/2014/07/30/how-is-our-gradschool-conference-funded-update/]

We’re very lucky within the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh to have a strong and active community of postgraduate students. The community, diverse as it is, is democratically represented by a committee of PhD students who volunteer a large chunk of their time to make the postgrad student experience as welcoming and inclusive as possible. The committee is re-elected each year from the 1st year cohort, and by far the biggest ‘responsibility’ of the committee comes at the end of their tenure with the annual Gradschool Conference.  This year it was held at the Macdonald Marine Hotel in North Berwick, and the conference traditionally spans Friday to Sunday to include many talks from PhD and MSc students, presentations by industry and sponsors, field trip(s), a dinner, ceilidh, and general socialising amongst peers, academics and industry.

Naturally, this doesn’t come cheap. As the School has expanded, so has the conference, and Gradschool rely heavily on sponsors to make the event affordable for all students who wish to participate. Inevitably, however, this causes some friction. When Gradschool was originally set up 24 years ago, it was within the Geology Department. Geology and geophysics students would expect jobs in oil and gas, mining, or similar industries and as such the sponsorship of the annual conference reflected this. The School of Geosciences, formed 12 years ago, now represents everything from social geography to geophysics, via atmospheric modelling, ecology, climate research, geology, and physical geography (and all combinations thereof). The student population is now very diverse, and the current model of funding and hosting of the annual conference is under scrutiny. There is a feeling among some that Gradschool should not be accepting sponsorship from companies which are unethical. Or from big corporations. Questions are being asked as to whether the traditional sponsorship sends out the right messages about the School, and whether we are suffering reputational damage because of it. Should Gradschool therefore court smaller, more ethical organisations, or accept less funding and scale back its scope?

I’m not going to answer that here. But as a former Vice-chair of the Gradschool Committee in 2012/13, this is what I can tell you. To begin with, there is a perception that since the vast majority of our sponsors each year represent the oil and gas industry, that Gradschool do not adequately try and get sponsorship from other sectors. However, if you look at the figures for the conferences held in 2011, 2012 and 2013 (I don’t have the 2014 data), the percentage of organisations represented by oil and gas (Odious *) vs. all others (Cuddly *) is actually fairly evenly matched, Figures 1-3.

Gradschool Conference funding 2011

Fig 1. Percentages of Cuddly and Odious organisations contacted, responded with sponsorship, and amount donated for the 2011 Gradschool Conference

In the year that I was on the committee, we increased the percentage of Cuddly from 42% to 46% of all organisations contacted, Figures 1-3. So, in actual fact, nearly half of who we approached were non-oil and gas. One could argue that this is still not adequately representative of the School of Geosciences as a whole, since geology and geophysics counts for probably less than a third of the School, however it cannot be suggested that Gradschool only ever consider and/or approach Odious companies. So if the issue is not who we contact, then what is it?

Gradschool Conference funding 2012

Fig 2. Percentages of Cuddly and Odious organisations contacted, responded with sponsorship, and amount donated for the 2012 Gradschool Conference

As you can already see from the graphs in Figures 1-3, the issue is the proportion of sponsorship we actually receive after calling for support. Where the balance of organisations we contact is split nearly 50/50, the percentage of organisations actually committing to sponsorship drops off sharply. In fact, as you can see, over time this has declined so that oil and gas sponsorship in recent years has increased proportionally **. Not only that, but of those Cuddly organisations who are willing to sponsor, they are not able to commit to the same sums as Odious organisations (“Funding received“, Figures 1-3).

Gradschool Conference funding 2013

Fig 3. Percentages of Cuddly and Odious organisations contacted, responded with sponsorship, and amount donated for the 2013 Gradschool Conference

This, then, paints a picture of ‘ethical’ (i.e. Cuddly) organisations who simply don’t have the spending power to sponsor the kind of event which we want to put on.  Their spending power has decreased over time, likely due to the global recession hitting these companies much harder than Odious ones, who still operate in a buoyant market. Gradschool could, therefore, try and target more Cuddly organisations, but the sponsorship raised is likely to be a fraction of that normally accrued. Thus, big choices lie ahead. Does Gradschool scale back the conference based on more ethical, but smaller sponsorship in order to maintain inclusivity? Or does it take the ethical argument on the chin and plow on with tradition regardless? Or does the conference require something more radical? I’m not going to air my opinion on that. However, since the committee is re-elected every year, those who feel strongly enough are free to put themselves forward for election and steer the conference how they see fit. I wish them all the best!

*  These labels are entirely my flippant design based on caricature/stereotyping which doesn’t exist, but nonetheless people like to invoke in debates of this nature. They do not necessarily represent my opinion, the opinion of Gradschool Committee members past and present, or critics of the way the conference is funded. The labels may possibly aggravate some, probably weaken any credibility I may have, but they amuse me so I’m going with it. I determined Odious as any company overtly related to oil and gas, mining or traditional energy including service companies. Cuddly companies are everything else, including professional organisations such as EAGE, charities, NGOs, Government agencies, consultancies of any flavour except as noted under Odious, makers of scientific equipment, remote sensing, software developers, and academic organisations. You can mentally substitute Resources for Odious and Others for Cuddly, if you so wish, or leave a comment with your own ideas.
** Based upon the sponsors list for the 2014 conference, “Positively Responded” split was 19% Cuddly, 81% Odious

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2 thoughts on “How is our Gradschool Conference Funded?

  1. Pingback: How is our Gradschool Conference Funded? [UPDATE] | Vitamin CCS

  2. Pingback: How do my peers regard industry funding? (Part 1) | Vitamin CCS

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