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As a student, I quite enjoyed going to conferences. My first was the Society of Canadian Ornithologists in 2005 in Halifax, a gathering of about 100 people from universities, government, and the private sector in one hotel conference room for 2 days. If memory serves, I think I paid $50 (or rather my supervisor did), and we all drove the 5 hours from Fredericton. I met lots of great folks there, and learned a lot.

But lately, I’ve become rather frustrated with conferences. It seems to me that conferences are increasingly becoming less about the science, and more about the conference. As someone who’s spent many years producing local theatrical productions, I recognize many of the same things: promotion, venue, sound/lights (AV equipment), catering, … all of which can be had on a sliding scale of cost, but which are increasingly costing more and more. And then there are the conference add-ons that really have little to do with the actual science: the often-accompanying tote bag/swag from various sponsors, and the bar service (often during the poster session evenings).

Now, some of these costs are imposed by the venue. If you want alcohol served, there’s usually a minimum purchase, and you’ll also pay for serving staff, for example. But there are some steps that people organizing conferences can take to reduce what is becoming a burdensome cost. Do we really need those posh biscuits at the 10am tea break? Swanky tapas during the poster session? I’d argue not.

Here’s a quick spin through some of the ornithological conferences just to see how much they currently cost (assuming early-bird registration for a non-student, and not counting travel & accommodation):

British Ornithologists Union 2016: £235 members / £440 non-members

American Ornithologists Union/Cooper Ornithological Society 2015: $320 USD members / $395 USD non-members

North American Ornithological Congress 2016: $499 USD

Pacific Seabird Group 2016: $285 USD / $330 USD

International Penguin Conference 2016: R4500 (roughly $300 USD)

And some general ecological ones thrown in to boot:

Ecological Society of America 2016: $342 / $510

British Ecological Society 2015: £350

International Marine Conservation Congress (2014; 2016 price not yet posted): $462 / $624 USD

 

And again, this is exclusive of any travel, accommodations, or food. The PSG meeting, for example, is in Turtle Bay, Hawaii (an hour’s drive from Honolulu at a $300/night resort… though more ’affordable’ accommodation is likely to be found within 15-30 minutes’ drive).

Given that we’re often asked, as scientists, to show value for money, and budgets are ever shrinking (or at the best, not increasing, which is a decrease in real terms), we need to start asking whether it’s good value for money (often public grant money) to attend these expensive meetings. Sure, they’re fun, and a good chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, but is that enough for 1-4 days’ of listening to others talk about their research? Or at best, spend 15 minutes talking about some recent work of our own?

Yes, it costs money to run a conference. As a former producer, I’m only too aware of how much it costs to rent a venue, host a website (let alone one with online registration/payment), and coordinate a herd of cats group of scientists. But could we not all bring a brown-bag lunch one day? Plan meetings in more affordable cities near major airports? Forego the complementary drinks at the bar?

While most conferences offer a discount for students, the number doing so for postdocs or scientists who haven’t been visited by the magical funding fairy is much lower. To say nothing of scientists who spend money from their own pocket to go these shindigs.

There are of course also the ethical arguments about the potentially large carbon footprint of flying all over the place (and as an aside, we also have a carbon budget here at the RSPB).

I’m not arguing that we do away with conferences. I think they provide valuable time to interact with colleagues, network, and I very much enjoy attending them. But we need to make scientific conferences more affordable, or worth the ever-increasing prices.

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