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The Annual Meeting: Improving What Isn't Broken

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Science  04 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6154, pp. 74-79
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6154.74

Annual meetings are moneymakers for most scientific societies, and scientists continue to flock to them. But as the world changes, how long can the status quo hold?

Nearly 22,000 scientists converged on San Francisco last December for a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Local hotels and restaurants feasted on the biggest annual gathering of physical scientists on the planet, and AGU turned a tidy profit on what was its largest meeting ever. But in a world in which the main currency of information is now bytes, have such megaconclaves become an endangered species?

There are plenty of reasons to question the future of the traditional annual scientific conference. U.S. agencies have less money to spend on travel, research budgets are tighter, scientists are busier, and Web-based technologies for accessing meetings remotely are improving. But there are few signs that extinction is around the corner.

In fact, the familiar 5-day smorgasbord of talks, poster sessions, exhibition booths, job fairs, and public outreach seems to have lost none of its appeal for scientists. Meeting attendance has held steady or risen in recent years, according to executives at more than a dozen scientific societies who spoke with Science. So, too, have the number of requests to present at meetings, which officials say is a good barometer of overall interest. And compelling presenters continue to pack auditoriums (see p. 78).

ILLUSTRATION: DAVID PLUNKERT

At the same time, a one-two budget punch to federal agencies is taking a toll. The first blow was a May 2012 directive from the White House that ordered every agency to cut its spending on travel by 30% from 2010 levels. The cuts, triggered by over-the-top spending by one agency that prompted a public outcry, also come with a $500,000 cap on the cost of any government-sponsored meeting and closer scrutiny of all travel. The changes have made it much harder for federal scientists to gain permission to attend their favorite conferences.

The second blow is a 5% cut this year in the overall budgets of most agencies. That reduction, known as sequestration, kicked in this spring after the breakdown of a 2011 agreement between the White House and Congress to reduce the federal deficit.

Society officials say they have felt the effect of sequestration and tighter travel budgets. For example, some 14% fewer federal scientists attended last fall's AGU meeting, says the organization's CEO, Chris McEntee. In response, societies are trying to make meetings more enticing to both participants and those unable to attend in person. The revised fare includes Web-based features such as electronic posters, live-streaming of some events, and archiving much of the content for later viewing.

But devotees say those new wrinkles are no substitute for what they consider the real thing: the chance to hear firsthand about new research, present their own findings, meet potential collaborators or mentors in person, and feel part of the tribe. Neural scientist Thomas Carew, dean of arts and sciences at New York University in New York City and a former president of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), compares the experience of attending the society's annual meeting to a sporting event.

"You can feel the floor vibrate in the exhibit hall," he says about a meeting that last year attracted 28,574 people, good for 10th place on a ranking of the largest U.S. medical meetings. "There's a buzz that infuses the entire conference. For young scientists, it can be a transformative event in their careers."

Given all that a meeting offers, none of the society leaders anticipates switching to a virtual-only format in the foreseeable future, as NASA did this year with its annual Lunar Science Forum (see p. 75). "At least for me, there's nothing that could replace sitting and listening to a young scientist or a very prominent scientist explain his or her research to a group of people, all of whom are trained to ask hard questions and be skeptical," says Joseph McInerney, executive vice president of the American Society of Human Genetics, whose annual meeting draws about 7000 scientists.

Geophysical attraction.

The American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco keeps growing.

CREDIT: PHOTO BY GARY WAGER PHOTOS, KARNA KURATA, COURTESY OF AGU

For most societies, the annual meeting is also a moneymaker. Registration and exhibitor fees can contribute significantly to an organization's bottom line. SfN's annual meeting, for example, generated 43% of its overall revenue of $29 million last year and netted $3.8 million after expenses, according to the society's 2012 report.

The two major meetings put on by the Materials Research Society (MRS) each year do even better for the organization. Fueled by a record combined attendance of 13,750, the meetings produced 68% of the society's $11 million in revenues last year, contributing $4.6 million to its bottom line.

AGU's fall and spring meetings added $1.5 million to the organization's coffers in 2011, a big help in a year in which overall expenses of $39 million exceeded revenues by almost $5 million. The allure of such profits, meanwhile, has created a growing number of "predatory" scientific meetings that appear to exist solely for making money (see p. 76).

Not all meetings are money spinners, of course. The general science meeting organized each year by the AAAS (which publishes Science) is not "anyone's principal scientific meeting," CEO Alan Leshner acknowledges. That secondary status limits how much the organization can charge registrants and exhibitors. As a result, he says, revenues are insufficient to cover many no-charge activities "that are central to our mission," such as a family science day and programs relating to international events and human rights.

Even societies with profitable meetings are doing what they can to make their meetings more accessible. The path is not always smooth, as Bob Braughler, virtual engagement manager at MRS, can attest.

The society's first major initiative was live streaming a 5-day symposium on energy and sustainability held during its November 2012 meeting in Boston. However, that decision ran afoul of scientists who balked at having their slides and words captured for posterity and made available to anyone. "We needed to go to each one of the presenters and request their permission," Braughler says, "but not everybody was willing to do that." The result was unsightly: a video with a 15-minute blank every time an author demurred.

The society's experience highlights the tension between wanting to open up a meeting to all while preserving the intellectual property rights attached to the content. Presenters were concerned about sharing information that might wind up in a journal article or become part of a patent application. "If my talk is going to be archived, then I can't transfer the copyright or file a patent," explains Husam Alshareef, a professor of materials science and engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "And MRS is petrified of being sued," says Alshareef, who is co-chair of the program committee for the society's 2014 fall meeting.

Until the society can work out those IP issues, it is proceeding with caution. For example, MRS has shifted its emphasis to what Braughler calls "video capture"—recording a session and then making the video available on demand, for free, to both attendees and those who agree to register. That platform gives the society more control over content before it is posted. "We'll probably live stream at least one event this fall," he says, while some two dozen symposia will be captured and put into the archives.

Likewise, the American Society for Microbiology drastically curtailed live streaming of last month's annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. The decision was based on a membership poll showing that 90% of the people who wanted online access to information from a meeting they could not attend chose the "archived with no live" option. "Live streaming is also the most costly option," says Connie Herndon, the society's director of meetings, speaking before the meeting, "so if our attendees don't really want it, then we'll probably reduce it to a minimal amount."

Logistics are another reason the venerable annual meeting is likely to persist. Organizers book meeting venues up to a decade in advance, so any changes would necessarily take a long time to show up. "We're so big that we only fit into a few cities," says Nancy Todd, conference manager for the American Chemical Society (ACS), which holds large meetings in both the spring and the fall. Combining the two meetings, she says, would only worsen the space crunch.

But perhaps the biggest deterrent to change is the inherent conservatism of the community. "We've had two meetings [a year] since the beginning of time," Todd says. "It's what our members want." Neither federal cuts nor the Internet seem likely to change that winning formula for ACS and its sister organizations anytime soon.

  • * With reporting by Nisha Giridharan and Senah Yeboah-Sampong, 2013 Pitts Family Minority Science Writers interns.

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