Size-related problems may include a disproportionate skewing of a society's focus away from small but important subdisciplines, and meetings whose overloaded formats make it hard for attendees to focus on science, researchers say. Some argue that size-related problems can become so troubling that in themselves they form a spur for scientists to break away to form new, more focused societies.
A case in point may be the San Antonio, Texas-based International Behavioral Neuroscience Society (IBNS), established last May largely because of its members' dissatisfaction with the rapidly growing Society for Neuroscience as a forum for sharing their work.
"People were not happy with the large size of the [annual] Society for Neuroscience meeting and all the simultaneous presentations," says Matthew Wayner, Blumberg Professor of Life Sciences at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and first president of IBNS.
Wayner and others say they hope the fledgling society will help focus more attention on behavioral neuroscience as well as provide meeting formats conducive to doing productive science. Besides holding annual meetings, IBNS sponsors four scientific journals and plans to promote increased education and research in the field, coordinate research and clinical programs, formulate positions on biomedical ethics issues such as animal research, and facilitate communication between North American neuroscientists and their colleagues in other countries.
But even in predicting success for the new society, Wayner points to the challenge its members face: how to structure a successful and growing society so that increasing membership does not compromise manageability and focus.
According to IBNS members, behavioral neuroscientists had a strong original stake in the Society for Neuroscience and made up much of the original membership. But they say that, for the past several years, neuroscientists with a primary interest in how the brain affects behavior have felt that their interests were getting overlooked as other groups flooded into the society. The founding of IBNS, they say, is a way to create a scientific forum and advocacy group for neuroscientists wishing to return their discipline to what they call its roots: study of brain physiology and mechanisms in order to understand their effect on behavior.
IBNS members claim that, as the Society for Neuroscience has tripled in size over the past decade and a half, that population explosion--consisting mostly of molecular biologists--has changed the society's focus by sheer weight of numbers.
"There's been a huge explosion in the number of people trained in other fields who use the brain as an instrument of study, and to the extent that behavior is used at all, it's a dependent measure to understand molecular mechanisms," says Linda Spear, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton. "As a result, a lot of the old fields, like physiological psychology, have become disenfranchised from the society."
That's not to say that the Society for Neuroscience leadership worked actively to change the society's focus, say Spear and others. Five years ago, at the request of a group of behavioral neuroscientists, the board of the Society for Neuroscience issued a statement arguing for the continuing importance of studying behavior. But, IBNS members say, when one approach or subfield becomes so much larger than others, attention may shift to it unintentionally, simply because the large size seems to imply it has more importance.
"I don't think the leadership has much effect on the general drift of a society when the society is so large," says Spear. "When one aspect [molecular biology] gets larger and larger, it begins to seem more important, to seem like the way to go. More students go into it. In this case, more and more molecular often seems to mean less and less behavior, without anyone's necessarily intending that."
In addition, researchers say, the increasingly overloaded format of annual meetings of large societies, such as the Society for Neuroscience, is making those meetings a less-productive vehicle to advance their science. That's especially true, some neuroscientists say, for those with a strong interest in more than one subdiscipline.
"As the Society [for Neuroscience] is now, there's some behavior each day, in a lot of different sessions," says Paul Sanberg, professor and research director of neurosurgery at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Especially for someone like me, with an interest in cell biology, also, I can easily miss the behavior-focused talks. Increasingly, it's hard even to figure out where they are."
Abba Kastin, a researcher in peptides at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in New Orleans and at Tulane University School of Medicine, says he no longer attends large scientific meetings with simultaneous sessions and multiple themes. Kastin, who was the keynote speaker at the inaugural meeting of IBNS, says that more focused meetings encourage participants to talk more science and interact more with colleagues.
"If you go to a neurosci- ence meeting, there are so many posters, you know you can't see them in one day--not even read them, let alone discuss them," Kastin says.
"So you tend just to move along without even looking at more than the titles. But at a small, focused meeting, you know you will have time, so you actually pay attention.
"At small meetings, you begin to recognize people by sight, so you make an effort to get to know them. At large meetings, it's hopeless, so you just tend to renew acquaintances with those you already know."
According to Texas' Wayner, IBNS has a mandate from its members to keep its meetings focused and manageable as well as to promote behavioral neuroscience, since many of those scientists have found large meetings "overwhelming" and not really conducive to sharing their science with their peers. "You just keep walking down those rows and rows of posters, and it becomes intellectually oppressive," Wayner says. "Most everybody said, `No simultaneous sessions [at IBNS meetings]. No matter how large the membership gets, don't have a format that sacrifices focus and informality.'"
After an inaugural meeting that featured 100 scientific papers, more than 1,000 responses to his initial solicitation of interest for the society, and what society officers call a steady stream of membership applications since the May meeting, Wayner predicts success for IBNS. But, ironically, he fears that this very success may compromise one of the society's strongest drawing cards--its promise of focused meetings with no simultaneous sessions.
Society officers say that they hope to restrain increasing membership somewhat by requiring new members to be sponsored by two scientists who are already members and to gain approval from the membership committee and council. They agree that most participating scientists have expressed a preference for smaller, more focused meetings.
But Wayner says that the society's second annual meeting, scheduled for next April, already has "eight themes, plus a satellite meeting, and someone wants to offer a workshop." That's up from the May inaugural meeting, at which only three main scientific themes were addressed. "No one thinks the science will be served if we let things get out of hand," Wayner says. "But somehow people will have to agree that you can't do everything at every meeting. You can't say, `Okay, we'll do what everybody wants.' Someone has to step in and say, `No, we'll limit ourselves each year to a few things that are really hot and exciting.' But I don't know how you do that, once you get into a committee structure. It worked better when I was the tyrant."
Marcia Clemmitt is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.