Blogpost from ESA President Laura Huenneke
July 1, 2019
Scientific conferences play key roles in the growth of a discipline and in the careers of scientists. Members of the Ecological Society of America tell us that the annual August meeting is a valued benefit, both in surveys and by participating in the meetings. As I’ve noted in this space before, the meeting is also important to the Society as a venue for serving our members and as a source of revenue for other valuable programs. ESA has a standing Meetings Committee whose members recommend future meeting locations and think strategically about the structure and schedule of the conference. This committee, ESA’s staff members, and the Governing Board are all committed to keeping the conference as valuable – and accessible – as possible for our membership.
The Meetings Committee convened recently at ESA’s DC office to review feedback from meeting attendees and other members (gathered in an annual survey) and to consider potential improvements. The strategic discussion resulted in a number of changes that will be rolled out over the next couple of years. Be on the lookout for these modifications of meeting structure and components, and let us know how they affect your experience and your assessment of the meeting’s value!
This upcoming meeting in Louisville incorporates several improvements and expansion of services. Abstract submissions were given broader peer review (by members of the Meetings Committee) to complement the thorough review by ESA staff. The “closing reception” scheduled for Thursday evening has been refreshed as a networking event, reflecting its nature more accurately and reassuring those with presentations on Friday that in fact the conference isn’t over. Based on feedback after last year’s meeting, and the repeated call for more emphasis on career and professional development activities, the greatly expanded Career Central will offer an extensive menu of resources, coaching, workshops, and other activities throughout the week.
This year also sees much greater investment in travel support for participants. Beyond the usual section and chapter awards and grant support for SEEDS participants, our major fall fundraising appeal allowed us to allocate $35,000 for travel grants for Louisville. These are building the diversity of participants at this year’s meeting and offsetting the financial challenges many of our members encounter. ESA is also striving each year to make the meeting more inclusive and diverse and welcoming for all ecologists. This year, we are providing pronoun name badge stickers, language name badge stickers, gender neutral bathrooms, free caregiver registration, a quiet room, nursing rooms, child care, a one-day registration option, diversity travel awards, and bystander workshops.
Next year (2020) in Salt Lake City, you will see additional modifications to the meeting. Most noticeably, organized oral and contributed oral presentations will be shorter in length, returning to a 15-minute format. Symposium talks will now be 20 minutes long. This change allows us to fit more talks into the schedule while leaving opportunities for discussion and Q&A. Responding to participants’ observations that there hasn’t been sufficient time for or traffic through the exhibits area, poster sessions will be emphasized and will overlap more with the exhibits – all aimed at increasing the opportunity for personal interactions around both research and resources. Latebreaking posters will move to the Thursday afternoon poster session to give more opportunity for workshops and field trips on Friday.
For Salt Lake City, ESA will also be instituting an abstract fee of $60 for all oral presentations. This matches what most other scientific societies and conferences have been doing for a while; the fee will offset the cost of pre-meeting labor, will discourage no-shows at the meeting, and will encourage some presenters to consider doing a poster rather than a talk. (There seems to be unlimited demand for giving oral presentations, but we observe small audiences for many of the oral sessions and there are so many concurrent sessions to accommodate talks, relative to the overall size of the meeting, that many conference centers are reluctant to host our event.)
One form of modernizing the meeting, and making it more accessible and valuable to members that I’ve been pushing hard is the greater use of technology to capture and share meeting content, and to enable interaction between those on-site and those who cannot attend in person. Those who are aware of the importance of registration fees to the success of the conference, and to the overall financial health of the Society, are reluctant to present too many alternatives to in-person attendance. But I am personally persuaded that both attendees and those at a distance would value (and perhaps pay a little for!) recorded content, or the ability to participate in (for example) a section business meeting or workshop via video conferencing. Progress in testing these ideas has been slower than I would like, but ESA has been doing some pilots. Last year, the opening plenary was live-streamed, and this year the conference budget includes the recording of all of the plenary talks to be shared with members. ESA staff and the Meetings Committee continue to explore both technologies and costs for the capture of oral presentations and slides, and the possible use of electronic posters, for possible deployment in 2021 and beyond.
Of course, many elements of the meeting week continue. Field trips showcase natural highlights of each region as well as the unique socio-ecological dynamics operating there. Symposia, talks and posters, workshops and special sessions all include major tracks for ecological education as well as science. Specific timeslots each day are dedicated to networking activities. The Diversity Luncheon and the recently instituted Diversity Forum, in addition to SEEDS and early career mentoring activities, remain visible demonstrations of ESA’s commitment to our community’s human and personal well-being. Finally, the Society continues the considerable subsidies for child care, attention to access for the mobility-impaired, and other ways of maximizing access to the benefits of the meeting.
The Meetings Committee and ESA’s staff members (especially Christi Nam, Associate Director of Conventions and Meetings, and the Meeting Program Associate, Jennifer Riem) continue to mull over improvements and responses to member feedback. Please continue to let us know what aspects of the meeting experience mean the most to you and how we can maximize that value. Respond to this year’s post-meeting survey in August, and come by the Meetings Committee’s session at Career Central on Monday afternoon, “Everything You Wanted to Know about ESA Annual Meetings,” to discuss. Louisville will be the Society’s 104th annual meeting; help us plan for the next 104!
Laura F. Huenneke