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.

The expansion of the Gordon Research Conferences and their scope of scientific topics have coincided with radical changes in science, technology, and medicine, as well as consumer culture, social relations, and political systems. Conferences are very important sites for negotiating these changes. Gordon Conferences, in particular, have brought together diverse voices, pushed scientists to explore new lines of research, and acted as forums for peer review.

Historians and sociologists of science have long examined the role of communal norms in science and at its interface with the public. For example, certain institutions and journals are regarded as highly credible and research is only rarely subjected to replication. Controversies in scientific knowledge require visibly social-and sometimes overtly political-processes to reach closure. Furthermore, scientific knowledge rarely transfers smoothly into policy arenas. Yet the role of conferences for each of these communal issues has been largely ignored in the social science literature. Gordon Research Conferences, though intentionally focused to "pure" research, play a crucial role in the scientific infrastructure and in the process by which new communities are formed. By stimulating frank discussion, they also help build consensus on new theories, methods, and results that often have impacts well beyond the scientific community.

Looking to the future, GRC faces a variety of challenges. First, investments in science and technology today are growing much more rapidly in Asia than in the United States or Europe. But transferring the Gordon Conference model to other countries has proven difficult, since the attraction of a week in a remote location and intensive dialogue bordering on debate is not universally recognized and must be cultivated over time to succeed. Second, GRC's success has bred competition from other organizations, ranging from for-profit firms to professional societies. To date, GRC has withstood challenges by remaining flexible and responding to needs for new conference topics while strictly adhering to the conference format.

Finally, GRC faces the continued challenge of determining where the frontiers of science are located. Derek Price famously postulated in 1963 that eighty to ninety percent of all scientists who had ever lived were alive at that moment. That percentage has increased in the interim, since scientific growth has continued at an exponential rate. Yet GRC runs a finite number of conferences for a comparably modest number of attendees. Mechanisms for setting conference programs and evaluating content described here have been very successful. The key challenge is whether GRC's governance tools, including the S&S committee and internal selection of conference chairs, can keep pace with the ever growing number of conferences. Are they infinitely scaleable, or are they eventually size-dependent? The fact that GRC is currently marking its 75th anniversary suggests that it has thus far employed the right mix of policies, conference structure, and focus on good science to resolve these challenges.