This section contains a historical essay about the Gordon Research Conferences organization. Use the links below or in the main menu to navigate between the different sections of the essay.

A Distinctive Operating Formula
The unique format of the Gordon Research Conferences encourages much-needed debate among scientists from academia, industry, and government, ranging from Nobel laureates to Ph.D. students, and with backgrounds from a wide array of scientific disciplines. The meetings also kindle life-long friendships and collaborations that further scientific research outside the conferences themselves. The principles of this format, enumerated in a 1950 publication by the AAAS, still ring true for today's GRC attendees: limited numbers of conferees encourage full participation in discussion, the formation of friendships, and impromptu informal discussions; conferences include a balance of participants from academia, industry, government, and other research institutions; meetings nurture the free exchange of scientific ideas; and documentation or publication of conference discussions or presentations is restricted.

GRC's operating formula puts small groups of scientists into isolated locations for five days with ample discussion time. This structure has stimulated advances in theoretical knowledge, promulgated new experimental techniques, promoted scientific collaborations, shaped science's structural elements, and helped to develop products ranging from new polymers to innovative medicines.

Focus on Frontier Science

Gordon Conferences are designed to identify and explore frontier areas through a tradition of scientists presenting recently discovered and unpublished findings, discussing unsolved research problems, and explaining new experimental techniques. Scientists come away from conferences with new questions and research ideas to explore at their home institutions. The conferences also provide an opportunity to exchange critical feedback with colleagues. Over time, the focus on frontier science has catalyzed new conferences for rapidly evolving fields.


Conferences are intentionally held in remote locations, providing an environment more or less free from other distractions. The 1933 program for conferences at Johns Hopkins University recommended cottages on the Chesapeake Bay from which conference attendees could commute to Baltimore. Gordon chose Gibson Island as the new conference site in 1934 for its isolation and vacation-oriented atmosphere. With only some eighty private residences and the Gibson Island Club, the largely forested island offered golf, tennis, sailing, swimming, and fishing. Located near six mountains and several lakes, Colby Junior College provided conferees with cooler temperatures, seclusion, and a variety of recreational opportunities. Conference locations added since that time in New England, California, Europe, and Asia were selected with similar ideals in mind.

Over time, GRC developed special relationships with some host locations. Colby Junior College's summer vacancy was an important selling point in choosing the new conference site in 1947; it provided boarding and isolation for the conferences, and in turn, registration fees paid by GRC attendees created an additional revenue stream for the college. A contemporary example is the positive economic impact that the nearly thirty conferences held annually in Ventura, California have had on local restaurants and stores.


Conferences held at Johns Hopkins in the early 1930s were organized as summer courses taught by chemistry department faculty and visiting specialists over a period of five weeks. One course met each week for five days (Monday to Friday). After the move to Gibson Island, one or two formal lectures were held each day-usually in the morning-followed by discussion periods. The daily schedule and format used today was established in the 1940s: breakfast together, formal presentations in the early morning, discussions until lunch, afternoons off, and further talks and discussion in the evening after a common dinner. Especially noteworthy, afternoons and late evenings are intended for sports, other recreation, and informal discussions. Conferences now run from Sunday night through Friday morning, and typically also include time for late-afternoon or evening poster sessions.

While the GRC conference schedule is strict, it is still intended to be flexible, with ample time for small group conversation, one-on-one meetings, recreation, and relaxation. Conference programs are set in advance, but in several known instances, announcements of significant breakthroughs led chairs to restructure programs or add extra discussion periods.

Collegial Atmosphere

GRC's strategic mix of scientific discussion with recreation has facilitated an open exchange of ideas and promoted friendships and collaborative projects. The conference atmosphere encourages scientists to challenge each other vigorously. In many instances, a Gordon Conference is the first occasion for a young scientist to meet well-known experts, engage in serious debates, and face difficult, even intimidating, questions.

This atmosphere has established a kind of "real-time" peer review, balanced by afternoon and evening activities that foster collegiality. Events include late-night discussions and revelry, jam sessions, magic shows, a New England lobster dinner, sport rivalries (e.g., an academic vs. industry softball game), hiking, swimming, soccer, tennis, cricket, whale-watching, volleyball, canoeing, and myriad other recreational opportunities. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was common for families to accompany conferees to Gibson Island, and later to New Hampshire, creating a unique science-based vacation.

Off-The-Record Discussions

A GRC policy formally announced as early as the 1937 program restricted recording or publicly referencing information presented during a conference. GRC does not publish proceedings or permit references to the conferences in published scientific papers; however, it does strongly encourage attendees to publish under their own names. This "off-the-record" policy gives conferees the freedom to present and receive critical feedback on novel ideas, fledgling theories, and early experimental results. The honor of being chosen to speak at a GRC further encourages presenters to describe their newest research. Guaranteeing the privacy of conference communications has contributed to GRC's success in breaking down communication barriers in the scientific community.

Poster sessions at GRCs offer an interesting variation to this policy. Poster sessions date back to the 1985 Atomic Physics Conference when Harold Metcalf, prohibited by GRC policy from presenting a talk at the conference he was chairing, mounted posters in the hallway describing his work and results. Though posters might seem to contradict the off-the-record policy, they are permitted by GRC leadership because they stimulate one-to-one conversations and group discussion.

Attendees and Diversity

Throughout its history, GRC has endeavored to keep attendee numbers small enough to promote full participation and high-quality discussion, but large enough to represent a diversity of perspectives and research approaches. Limited Gibson Island facilities restricted attendance to 60 people per conference in the 1930s and early 1940s. Capacity was increased by the move to New Hampshire in 1947, and board discussions in the 1950s and 1960s set the ideal attendance at 100. Conference registration numbers have increased since then, although meeting room and lodging capacity limits attendance to 135 at many sites. In 2005 conference attendance ranged from 30 to 174, with an overall average of 114.

GRC strives to create conferences that serve as meeting grounds for all kinds of scientists, and actively encourages diversity in institutional affiliation, gender, nationality, ethnicity, scientific discipline, and career-stage. GRC has long held a nondiscriminatory policy regarding admission and financial assistance. Conference chairs are expected to attract and select a diverse group of participants. The organization monitors the demographics of conference attendance to gauge its success in encouraging collaborative scientific initiatives and supporting communication across boundaries in the scientific community. GRC demographics also provide clues to the changing dynamics during the past seventy-five years between scientists in various career-stages and social groups, and among different types of institutions. Institutional Affiliation of GRC Attendees The balance of academic, industrial, and government scientists at conferences has shifted significantly during GRC's history. In the 1940s and 1950s, industrial scientists dominated conference attendance. Noting the imbalance, the AAAS committee managing the conferences developed an assistance fund in 1950 to support attendance by scientists from government and academia. Parks, known for his successful cultivation of private-sector financial support, often argued that industrial companies would benefit by contributing to GRC because of its role in enhancing academic and government science. Mirroring the post-Sputnik expansion in federal support for academic and government institutions, academic attendance at GRC began a sharp climb in the late 1950s. By 1969, equal numbers of academic and industry scientists were in attendance. Since then, the percentage of academic attendance has continued to rise for a number of reasons, including time available to attend a week-long conference and changes in the structure and focus of industrial research. Conference participation today hovers around 81 percent academic, just over 10 percent from industry, less than 7 percent from government, and about 2 percent from foundations, non-governmental organizations, and other institutions.

The participation of scientists from outside the United States has steadily increased during the past seventy-five years. Even in the face of Cold War dynamics, GRC strove to advance international scientific dialogue by encouraging worldwide participation. By 1971, almost 14 percent of all GRC attendees were from other countries. Foreign attendance rose to more than 34 percent by 2005, and conferences have been held in Italy, England, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Switzerland, China, Japan, and Singapore.

The percentage of women attending GRC has also increased over time. As early as the 1940s, a handful of female scientists participated in the GRC, particularly in conferences oriented toward the biological sciences. The participation of women stayed below 5 percent until 1970, but has increased since to 29 percent in 2005.

A mixture of scientists in various career stages adds new perspectives to conference discussions, facilitates mentoring of younger scientists, and creates a forum for "young turks" to challenge orthodoxy. GRC has encouraged the participation of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows during the past decade, in part through the Gordon-Kenan Summer School programs. For many young scientists, attending a GRC is the first opportunity to speak firsthand with world-renowned leaders in their disciplines.

Conference Management

Each conference is governed internally by a chair and vice-chair. Once a conference is established, conferees elect a vice-chair for the next meeting who becomes chair in the next cycle. (Most conferences meet every two years; others meet each year or every three years.) This approach provides continuity while ensuring that the program does not stagnate under a single person's control. The scientists who participate on the GRC board and S&S Committee do so with the mandate to ensure that the conferences stay on the leading edge of new research disciplines or sub-fields.

New Gordon Conferences come to life when an individual or small group identifies a specific research area that would benefit from the intensive discussion of a GRC. Today, new meetings are initiated by a formal application process that begins with a written proposal backed by leading scientists in the discipline. The GRC director and advisors first review the degree of overlap with existing conferences. The S&S Committee next recommends proposals to the board of trustees. Once the board approves a new conference, its chair (typically the proposal author) is responsible for setting the program, inviting speakers, and selecting participants from the applicant pool.

Each conference is evaluated in the year that it meets by the S&S Committee, based on a survey of conferees conducted during the meeting, a chair's report, and at times, assessments by external monitors. A return on the survey of less than 80 percent or declining participant numbers put a conference at risk of being cancelled. Evaluation forms ask conferees to rate the quality of presentations and discussion, and to assess the extent to which presented material ranks as cutting-edge.

GRC Structure and Governance

During the 1930s, Neil Gordon organized conferences, managed the budgets, and handled attendance through direct correspondence with applicants. After the conferences became a participating organization of AAAS in 1938, committees were established to set policy and make decisions regarding conference finances. A board of trustees and council were established when GRC incorporated in 1956. Though GRC had become independent, AAAS retained formal representation on GRC's governing bodies. Today, GRC's council is made up of the director, the trustees, conference chairs, elected members-at-large (scientists who have attended at least one Gordon Conference), and representatives from sponsoring companies.

The council advises the board on policy and financial matters. Initially, the board chose new conferences and determined which existing conferences would be held each year. The GRC director was responsible for scheduling the conferences. The S&S Committee formed in 1958 took over this responsibility and acts in an advisory capacity to the board. Other committees have also been formed since GRC's incorporation to advise the board on matters such as finance and executive management. Today the board is also charged with fostering diversity in gender, geography, and scientific disciplines among both conference attendees and the trustees.