Australian readers will already be familiar with the recent story about how scientists gathered for a conference on climate change discovered… new reasons for temperatures to rise. According to The Age articles linked above, the events organiser, one Professor Mike Hutchinson from the Centre for Resource and Environment Studies at ANU, booked what was apparently originally intended to be a 45-minute burlesque routine. The routine was cut after ten minutes, when a number of the scientists present began to walk out. Ten minutes, however, was evidently enough to allow a stripper covered in balloons to circulate around the room, offering the use of a pin to consenting scientists, and for other sexually-suggestive jokes and performances.
The event was apparently intended as the highlight of the 17th Annual Australia New Zealand Climate Change Forum, and had received sponsorship from the Australian federal government, the Australian Research Council, and others. In response to complaints about the event, the ANZ Climate Change Forum organising committee has offered to allow sponsors to withdraw, and at least some government sponsors have indicated that they will be taking up the offer.
I’m not personally sure what to say about this incident – mainly because I find the concept of scheduling this kind of entertainment for what claims to be a scientific conference so bizarre that I’m not sure I can really add anything meaningful to the… er… bare facts. Maybe I’m just not attending the right conferences, but I’ve generally seen conference entertainment like, you know, speakers who have something interesting or controversial to say about issues related to the conference topic…
I notice that one of the women involved in the burlesque performance has asked:
“Why is it any different to hiring a ventriloquist? Professor Hutchinson may well have misread his guests, but it’s a statement about how fearful we as a society are about sex. Are we also saying scientists are not sexual people, for heaven’s sake?”
I realise that much of the debate occurring over this incident relates primarily to the issue of gender relations, particularly given the sensitivities around recruiting and retaining qualified women in the sciences, and so it makes sense that most of the discussion has centred on the issue of comfort or discomfort with sexuality in a professional space. I have to admit, though, I’d also find it fairly bizarre to find myself entertained by a ventriloquist at an academic conference…
So I’ve become a bit curious about whether this incident seems even more odd to me than it should, given that my major form of entertainment is dragging interesting people to coffee shops to talk about social theory, and I perceive conferences primarily as opportunities to meet new people for this purpose… In others’ experience, is there a recent precedent for this kind of “entertainment” at academic conferences?
[Note: photo of burlesque performer Rebecca Gale @2006 The Age, URL: http://www.theage.com.au/ffximage/2006/09/07/200_nat_0809.jpg ]