The Future of Scientific Meetings

FEATUREScientific Meetings © Erik Dreyer/Getty Images Less time, more conferences, and better mobile technology: Meeting planners struggle with the challenges facing the industryBY KEITH O'BRIENIn late 2003, a handful of scientists-turned-conference-planners met at the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan. The big players of scientific conference planning - Gordon Research Conferences, Keystone Symposia, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory - were

Keith O' Brien
Apr 30, 2006
Scientific Meetings
The Future of Scientific Meetings
© Erik Dreyer/Getty Images

Less time, more conferences, and better mobile technology: Meeting planners struggle with the challenges facing the industry

In late 2003, a handful of scientists-turned-conference-planners met at the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan. The big players of scientific conference planning - Gordon Research Conferences, Keystone Symposia, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory - were all there. And they were joined by representatives from the Jackson Laboratory in Maine and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

It was a typical working-lunch affair, complete with Power Point presentations, brief talks, and then informal discussion. Nothing very exciting, but the fact that these competitors decided to meet formally for the first time revealed a sign of the times. "We were becoming concerned that the field was getting bloated with meetings," says John Macauley, senior director of courses and conferences for Jackson Lab.

No industry clearinghouse exists that keeps data on the number of meetings held each year or the number of scientists who attend them. What's clear to anyone in the field, however, is the "explosion of meetings" in the last decade, says John Magyar, a postdoc in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. "We're constantly getting E-mails and seeing posters for a wide variety of meetings," he says. "The days are gone where you'd be an inorganic chemist and the only two meetings you'd go to in a year would be the inorganic Gordon conference and the American Chemical Society national meeting."

Now, Magyar says, researchers have far more options that put demands on their time, and industry numbers bear out that observation. Gordon Research Conferences, which had about 155 conferences in 2000, had more than 180 last year. Keystone had 37 conferences in 1995 and expects to have 54 this year. Jackson Lab logged in a half-dozen conferences eight years ago and now has nearly 30 annual meetings. For-profit meeting organizers, such as Cambridge Healthtech Institute and IBC USA Conferences, have also gotten into the industry, holding dozens of conferences per year.

Cambridge Healthtech, which held six events in its first year in 1992, had 85 meetings planned in fiscal year 2005-2006. Some scientific societies, known historically for putting on large annual meetings, are branching out and planning smaller, topic-based meetings. The reason is simple, says Kevin Wilson, director of public policy at the American Society for Cell Biology. "We wanted to provide something similar to our members, something similar to a Gordon conference, on issues important to cell biologists," he says.

No definite policy changes came out of the discussions at the Manhattan meeting in 2003 or at the two meetings that followed in subsequent years. But almost everyone seems to agree on one point: "Anywhere you look, there's a group putting on a meeting on a given topic," says Jeff Ruben, director of program development for the AACR. This trend has created its share of issues both for the scientists who attend meetings (see "Six Tips for Getting the Most from Your Next Conference", below) and the people who plan them. Researchers are now swamped with options.

At times in recent years, conferences on the same issue have overlapped, or fallen so close together on the calendar, that people must choose between them. In one case, Ruben says, a speaker was actually booked in two places, at the same time, speaking about the same topic. The quest to land speakers is an issue for almost everyone in the industry, including scientific societies and meeting providers. Other concerns include the increasing pace of modern scientific discovery, the lack of time that many researchers feel they have, and the competition for grant money that funds these conferences.


The changes began about a decade ago, driven, like so many other trends, by the dawn of the Internet age. Up until then, there were just a few tried and true formulas for conferences: The secluded event, often held far from major cities in order to eliminate distractions and promote scientific discussion; and the resort get-away, where attendees might be allotted time to ski between talks and seminars. Either way, one thing was often clear: Those in attendance would be staying for awhile, maybe four or five days.

As the number of meetings increases each year, so does, it seems, the pace of scientific discovery. Researchers often feel as if they have little time to spare. And when they do have time on their hands, most would rather spend it in the lab, not on an airplane.

But as the number of meetings increases each year, so does, it seems, the pace of scientific discovery. Researchers often feel as if they have little time to spare. And when they do have time on their hands, most would rather spend it in the lab, not on an airplane. Judith Campisi, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, says she's choosy when it comes to attending meetings. When she does go, she's not likely to stay at the conference for the duration: "Some people, will fly in and give their talk, and fly out," says Campisi.

Both young scientists and veteran researchers have noticed the changes. Once trapped at conferences without E-mail, cell phones, and perhaps even cars, researchers these days are connected to the outside world sometimes to the point of distraction. These changes, driven in part by new technology, have raised the obvious question in recent years: Will the virtual conference ever replace reality?

"It's not technologically difficult," says James W. Aiken, CEO of Keystone Conferences. A few years ago, he recalls, Keystone put together a Web cast of a tuberculosis conference, just to see if it could be done. "It was technically kind of a piece of cake," Aiken recalls. But there was another, bigger problem. "It was just terribly boring to sit there and stare at your computer screen and listen to a lecture."

Others say this sort of meeting would also be impractical. "No matter how many phone conversations, E-mails or faxes one might have, one needs to be able to sit down - preferably over a glass of milk, water, or wine - and talk to each other," says Anne Ephrussi, a senior scientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. "It's absolutely essential."

Still, under pressure from a world pressed for time, conferences are changing, with some cutting the length of their meetings. Keystone has almost completely eliminated the five-day meeting. AACR meetings, once three and a half days long, are now a day shorter. Even Gordon Research, which has made its name over the last 75 years by holding content-rich, five-day conferences, often in isolated locations, has considered tinkering with its formula.

"We haven't gone there yet," says Deborah Charych, a senior scientist at Chiron Technologies, a biotech company in northern California, and the chairperson of Gordon Research Conference board of trustees. That Gordon trustees have discussed the possibility reflects the demands of a scientific community that's in a hurry. To remain competitive in this market, conference organizers aren't just trying to secure the best speakers on the hottest topics, such as stem cells and RNA interference; they're trying to make their meeting formats more appealing. And finally, they're competing for cash.


Macauley, hired in 1998 to grow Jackson Lab's conference program, noticed the cash crunch shortly after coming on board, he says. It didn't stop him, however, from increasing the number of meetings Jackson Lab holds each year. The number of meetings has risen from six when Macauley first got there, to 25 in 2005.

But finding the money to put on the conferences hasn't been easy, says Macauley, and it's getting harder all the time. Hosting a conference is an expensive endeavor. A typical conference at Jackson Lab might cost $50,000 to $60,000 to organize, notes Macauley, and the costs of travel, lodging, and food are always on the rise. "We've seen it skyrocketing," he says. Meanwhile, most nonprofit meeting providers compete for grant money from the National Institutes of Health and other sources to finance their conferences. It's always been a competitive process, says Norka Ruiz Bravo, deputy director for extramural research at NIH. Statistics show that it's grown even more competitive since 2001. That year, NIH granted 83% of the applications it received for R13 and U13 grants, which fund conferences and meetings. But then the rate fell: to 79% in 2002 and 2003, 75% in 2004, and 71% last year, the lowest application success rate since 1996.

"We're finding the situation at the NIH abysmal right now," says Macauley, and others echo his view. "There is concern about the bottom dropping out," explains Nancy Ryan Gray, director of Gordon Research Conferences. "There are people who have predicted that the funds will be less available and the competition will be greater."

This, too, is pushing conference providers to adapt. Forced increasingly these days to seek funding from various sources, many conference organizers are relying on metrics and third-party surveys to show that their conferences deserve funding. One of the first things Macauley did after joining Jackson Lab was to contract with the University of Maine to find out what conference goers think about his programs, in part because funding providers such as the National Cancer Institute strongly advised it. Aiken felt similar pressures and responded with a study (see What's the Value of Conferences? on p. 54) to determine if Keystone's meetings were actually helping researchers to learn more about their fields. "We need to make sure, as a charity, that we're wisely spending our money," says Debbie Carley, head of Wellcome Trust's Conference Center.


No matter what they do right now, US conference providers are having problems attracting scientists who live and work abroad.

Dawit Wubie, a pathologist studying the immunology of malaria in his native Ethiopia, considers himself one of the lucky ones: He has received a visa to attend a Keystone malaria conference this year. Wubie believes he received the visa only because he was studying in England at the time. Others, such as Nigerian physician Paul Ihensekien, have faced far greater problems getting into the United States in the post-9/11 era. He has twice been denied visas to attend the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago.

The problem, says Wubie, is with officials who believe that young scientists may not return to their native countries after arriving in the United States. And then, of course, there are the more obvious security concerns. "Some people manage to make it, but many don't," says Ruben of the AACR. "They wait and wait and wait, and the US embassy won't give them a visa." These days, says Ruben, even prominent scientists get held up "to make sure they're not terrorists."

At the last roundtable held at Cold Spring Harbor in December 2005, conference organizers discussed lobbying the government to help scientists get visas. Meantime, some conference providers have changed their ways as a result of the new restrictions. Prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks, the American Association for the Advancement of Science would make telephone calls to US consulates overseas, says meetings manager Leslie Warrick, hoping to help researchers attend their annual meetings. "Now," she says, "we're just not willing to do that."

While frustrating to some foreign researchers, these travel restrictions may be influencing yet another trend. More and more these days, conference providers are looking to hold meetings outside the United States, pushing into European and even Asian markets. Gordon Conferences, which already has meeting facilities in Europe, is looking to expand to India and China. Keystone held its first meeting outside of North America in 2005 with a conference on stem cells in Singapore. It will hold its second overseas conference in England this summer, and Aiken hopes to hold a meeting in China by late 2007 or early 2008. "Is that market growing?" asks David Stewart, executive director of meetings and courses at Cold Spring Harbor. "Yeah ... We're looking elsewhere. Asia is the most obvious, large, untapped market."

Presumably, cracking into that market will lead to still more meetings. This growth won't always come easy, says Gordon's Gray. Some conference providers will face hardships along the way, she says, as they compete for funding. And Ruben believes there will be some practical limits placed on just how much more the meeting industry can grow.

But an old adage holds true here: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Meetings are still one of the few environments where researchers can gather, discuss shared interests and complex topics at length, and then retire to a private bar at a secluded location to network over drinks, perhaps, late into the night. In addition to the science, "they go to it for the fun," says Stewart.