A Modest Proposal to Decentralize Annual Conferences

As a junior professor, I spend a fair amount of my time worrying about how many conferences I will miss in a given year. The decision to attend or not usually revolves around a few questions: Where is the conference? Who is going to be there? How much will it cost? How long will I be gone? and, Do we have childcare coverage for the time I am away? Annual conference attendance for large societies easily numbers in the thousands and I feel pressure to be present at these annual gatherings, formerly for my own career, and lately because my students are now on the same academic path I was on a few years ago and they might need me to go to bat for them at these gatherings. I understand how important conference visibility can be for an early career researcher, at least in theory. What I am wondering recently, and I am not alone in this, is whether any benefits that large annual conferences provide outweigh the costs of (1) disparities of access, and (2) environmental impacts.

The Problem of Disparate Access

Large conference formats struggle to allow access to many sectors of our academic societies. For students, access challenges come in the form of cost. The substantial financial strain of taking on a flight and hotel accommodations is often a challenge for any graduate school travel budget (particularly with universities reimbursing rather than covering travel costs). For new parents, conference travel is typically out of the question for people caring for small kids and childcare needs are rarely included in conference planning. Then there is the issue of travel access, as those who live furthest away may take on a disproportionate burden of conference costs, or worse yet, there are whole countries (i.e., USA) that restrict travel because of racist policies that restrict access to scholars coming into the country, or in the case of undocumented scholars, restrict their ability to leave.

The Problem of Environmental Impacts

Large conferences come with a large carbon footprint because thousands of people travel to one location from all over the world. One cross-country flight from San Francisco to New York creates 0.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person, one eighth of your carbon emissions per year. For being as innovative, progressive, and forward looking as science often is, conference travel norms don’t seem to have evolved much in the last 30 years, and have been very slow to adopt the technological innovations that make virtual work more like face-to-face work. Opting out of conferences for this reason is still a surprise, though it is not unheard of as I learned recently:

A Modest Proposal to Decentralize

These two problems with major annual conferences (1) disparities of access, and (2) environmental impacts are counter to the values of science and society. Most of our societies care about these issues explicitly, or have many members who think access and the environment are two of the most important problems that the world is facing right now. Scientists should absolutely be taking the lead on these issues, and have done so in many domains, but not with respect to annual conferences. Big societies drag their feet on these kinds of adjustments because moving away from large annual conference models tends to threaten the ability of a large society to stay fiscally viable. If people don’t attend large conferences in large numbers, can large societies like APS or SPSP sustain themselves and their activities?

My own modest proposal will echo the proposals of others (here and here): I think large societies need to decentralize their annual conferences. Imagine that instead of having one large society meeting in one major city each year, a society like SPSP had multiple meetings in different parts of the world around the same time. The smaller meetings would be created around a few themes and organized by local academics in concert with the society (think of regional mini-conferences in for instance, the USA, Canada, Europe, and Asia). The mini-conferences would attract mostly local academics who would be encouraged to take rail lines or carpool to the gathering and then the organizers could invite a few visitors from farther away to create a mix of scholarship. The mini-conferences could then utilize more slide sharing, live video, and social media to create global engagement with the local mini-conference materials. And for access to all the local content, all you would need is to pay your annual society dues.

The proposal reduces the overall carbon footprint of our conferences. Fewer people would be traveling long distances and more attendees would be using environmentally friendly transportation options to get to the local branch of the society meetings. Societies would need to invest more in social media and technology to allow for the broader dissemination of conference material to a wider audience, but the increased content would bolster society membership. Finally, by cutting down on travel costs because travel is now more localized, conference goers could reduce the overall costs of attendance — the annual meeting wouldn’t break the graduate student bank the way it does with these large and distant conferences. And a smaller conference means smaller cities and less need for large conference venues. These conditions could favor graduate student budgets as students wouldn’t need to take on conference payment penalties for booking outside the meeting hotel block (ahem, SPSP). Lastly, because the mini conferences are held in many locations across the globe, the impact of racist travel bans and other nationalist policies would be minimized in favor of science and scholarship.

I also think the decentralized model would improve the overall conference experience of many attendees. At least for me, big conferences are impossible to navigate and I always feel like I miss out on everything I was planning to see. For a smaller decentralized model, if you miss something you can catch the recording (or the podcast!). And if the conference is smaller, the odds that the featured speaker will be at your smaller symposium or poster session are much higher. And people will still travel: Say your academic advisor is getting a lifetime achievement award — that lab can pick one of the regional meetings to attend.

There are a number of logistical question marks about how a society organizes this kind of dispersed event. Despite the logistical challenges, conferences are always populated by capable volunteers and the decentralized model is likely to be similarly powered by volunteers willing to take on the responsibility of organizing the regional version. And I have no doubt that we have enough science to fill up these smaller regional affairs, there is exciting work being done all over the world in my and related fields.

As large academic societies adjust to the changing landscape of the world it is becoming clearer that the big conference format is ill suited for the global and diverse makeup of the attendees. How societies adapt to these challenges is critical and all kinds of transformations, even radical ones that call for decentralization, can and should be considered as we all collectively move forward.