Weighing the costs of conferencing

Attending distant meetings offers a lot of benefits, despite high costs

A provocative editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association questions the value of attending scientific conferences. It’s a theme that reemerges every few years. And in times of tight budgets, the idea seems worth revisiting.

BOOK ‘EM These 448-page programs were available on tables for attendees to take at will, not rationed one per person.
QUARTET With many dozens of concurrent sessions, NSTA divided its hefty program and exhibition materials into a four-volume set.
TRAVEL COSTS Conference travel (and attendant pollution) becomes hard to justify when invited speakers fly long distances to address few–or no–attendees. iStockphoto

“In theory, these meetings aim to disseminate and advance research, train, educate, and set evidence-based policy,” observes John Ioannidis, director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center. But worthy as such goals may be, he argues in the journal’s March 28 edition that “there is virtually no evidence supporting the utility of most conferences.”

In fact, he charges, some major conclaves may pose a net debt.

For his piece in JAMA, the author focuses on medical meetings. But the questions he raises might just as reasonably be asked of people organizing conferences in any field.

The problems
It starts with travel. Ioannidis cites a 2008 commentary in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) that pegs average aggregate jet-fuel pollution at some 10,000 tons of carbon for the attendees’ roundtrip flights to a mid-sized international conference. Malcolm Green of Imperial College, London, described that representative “mid-size” meeting as one in San Diego drawing 15,000 attendees, 3,500 of them from Europe.

Green doesn’t go on to calculate how many trees give up their lives so that conference goers can peruse program books to find the sessions they want to attend and read synopses of the planned presentations. But abstract books and programs can weigh tons — literally — in the aggregate per meeting. And many have a useful lifetime comparable only to the Sunday newspaper.

An equally important, if less tangible, issue: the quality of data shared at science meetings.

Conferences promote “a bulk production of abstracts, with no or superficial peer review,” Ioannidis contends, leading to “mediocre curriculum vita building.” Moreover, published abstracts may live in perpetuity online or in citations, especially if the work it describes never makes its way into a full paper within a peer reviewed journal. So premature and potentially inaccurate findings can be communicated widely, he observes — and in such tight word budgets that important caveats may be edited out.

Then there’s the power and influence accorded speakers at big conferences. “Gaining the podium for the plenary presentation or important sessions at a major meeting confers prestige,” Ioannidis says, “even though there is little safeguard that what these featured speakers say has any value.”

So, could videoconferenced meetings be as good? “The answer is a resounding yes,” Green argued in his BMJ commentary. Big Oil, other multinationals, United Nations groups and government organizations regularly host online conferences. “Some are so vivid that in the heat of discussion members forget they are separated by oceans,” he contends.

In an era, then, when information can zip around the world instantly, the contribution of large conferences to the dissemination and advancement of science “is unclear,” Ioannidis concludes.

He’s right, of course. But that doesn’t mean conferences can’t have great value.

The benefits
Meetings allow people in related — and often unrelated — fields to mix and discuss and sometimes engage in heated debates. Half-baked ideas may be identified as such by bringing experts from one field into the same room with up-and-comers or wannabes. Their conversations may lead to the redesign of followup studies or reanalysis of data — long before the findings are ready to see the prime time of journal submission.

And that’s a good thing.

Attendees also get a chance to ask experimenters or theoreticians why they’re looking into something. Or why they chose to analyze their data a particular way. Or why they used one particular animal, cell type, polymer or transition metal over another. Many times, listeners ask what might happen if the experimenters had changed one variable to better reflect real world conditions.

Questions like these pepper presenters at scientific meetings. Most researchers seem to appreciate the informal critiques and often respond by pledging to go back home and test out the suggested ideas (money willing, of course).

Then there are the opportunities for young scientists and engineers to present their preliminary findings, often at poster sessions. Their own lab may be too small or insular to afford quality feedback on whether their studies have been designed to elicit the biggest bang — or novelty — for their grant’s buck. But as people drop by for small intimate poster chats, both presenter and “visitor” may get as much knowledge as they give.

Or conference attendees might hear a talk that catalyzes an “aha moment.” It may come from sitting in on a session whose topics are purportedly tangential at best. But as most of us have learned, interesting ideas can spring from listening outside the box.

Conferences also can foster a networking among or collegial bonding between people who can afford long-distance travel only on their bosses’ dimes. Chats among these attendees may lead to important collaborations between far-flung labs. And face time with strangers may uncover a new research opportunity or mentor.

Such benefits can be hard to quantify or predict. But they do occur.

In a BMJ commentary that ran head-to-head with Green’s, James Owen Drife of Leeds General Infirmary argued that face-to-face contact is hard to replace. Videoconferencing, for instance, may shield the faces or mutterings of people off camera. And virtual events can limit the ability to follow up with someone else in the audience when the session ends, especially if you never caught the commenter’s name and affiliation (a common problem when people speak quickly or softly).

Reform needed
Conferences have developed a deserved reputation for waste. At the Society of Toxicology meeting in San Francisco, last month, attendees had to pay for abstract books. But program and exhibitor guides (the size of small phone books) were available for the taking on tables near registration. This encouraged some people to leave one at the hotel and pick up a new one each day when they entered the convention center.

Convenience also frequently trumps resource conservation in the dining hall and food court. This can occur even at events that normally work hard to avoid waste. For instance, at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference last year, boxed meals were issued on one day to a ballroom full of diners. The meal was overly packaged, used disposable flatware and included fixed contents. This sparked a heated online discussion afterward over what had been discarded — including unwanted desserts, chips, saran packaging and everyone’s rigid plastic boxes. Better, the members argued, to have had a few chafing dishes and trays of desserts where people could select from among unpackaged items, taking only as much as they’d eat.

And then there’s the National Science Teachers Association meeting I just returned from on Sunday. Although excellent, many of the sessions in Indianapolis were sparsely attended. Despite a turnout expected to top 7,000, I went to sessions with as few as two to five participants. In each case, there were at least two presenters, sometimes twice that many. And I had dinner with two presenters on the second-to-last day who showed up from North Carolina to speak to a totally empty room.

Not all sessions were tiny. One charismatic speaker regaling people on his tornado chasing drew upwards of 500. But peeking into the doorways of other talks as I bounced between sessions confirmed that my low-show experiences were not unique. At some periods of the day there might be 95 or more competing talks and workshops. Consolidating similarly themed events (and there were many) might have limited the chance that experts would incur substantial travel costs to address, advise or work with a mere handful of attendees.

Fortunately, conference organizers are aware of their environmental footprint and interested in cleaning up their acts. Take the American Chemical Society, which hosts two mammoth national meetings each year. Together they typically draw 20,000 scientists or more. On March 26, ACS issued a report outlining its efforts to move toward “sustainable” meetings.

Among 2011 highlights, the ACS national meetings

— reduced the carbon footprint of their hotel shuttles (which move attendees all to meeting venues) by 50 percent and offset the remaining 76 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. (ACS achieved this through carbon-offset investments with the Carbon Fund for renewable energy, reforestation and energy efficiency projects.)

— pioneered the issuing of its meeting program as a mobile app and PDF download. Although paper programs (which typically run around 500 pages) were available for those who preferred the dead-tree version, ACS claims that offering a digital alternative ultimately saved 1,600 pounds of paper and associated freight.

— donated all usable, uneaten food from meeting events to local community groups.

— recycled (or composted) 82 percent of food and serving wastes from poster-session mixers. Additionally, giving attendees reusable water bottles avoided thirsty participants feeling compelled to purchase their hydration in disposable bottles.

Through such programs, the society “hopes to not only transform its own meetings over time but to demonstrate leadership within the meeting and event industry, pushing fellow associations to enhance their environmental and social responsibility efforts,” says ACS meetings operations director Alan Hutchins.

Indeed, such measures could help preserve the viability of convening face-to-face.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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