People go to conferences for a variety of reasons. Conferences are used to align future research priorities, and students and postdocs can “network.” Meetings also provide an opportunity to travel to cool places and take a vacation.
When conferences are in fancy places, they might attract more people, but only those who can afford to go. We need to have students and postdocs at conferences, for their own sakes and for the future of the field. At least in my fields, international conferences often are designed to make it very hard for students and postdocs to attend.
I recently got back from Cairns, a small city adjacent to tropical rainforest in Australia. I had a couple extra days. I went up onto the rainforest and met a koala for a photo opportunity. I went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. And I got to visit with some spectacular ants, like green tree ants (Oecophylla) and bulldog ants (Myrmecia). There was no shortage of good shiraz.
My reasons for this trip were back-to-back conferences. One was the annual tropical biology meeting, and the other was the extra-special quadrennial gathering of social insect researchers: the International Union for the Study of Social Insects (IUSSI). After having worked on ants for quite a while, I look forward to these IUSSI meetings for a chance to see old friends and colleagues, make new ones, and also learn new science.
There were a lot of people I was looking forward to seeing at the IUSSI meeting, but they weren’t there. The reason is glaring: this was a stunningly expensive meeting. The travel itself cost more than $2000. The registration wasn’t much cheaper than $1000. Accommodation in Cairns, especially during the tropical dry season, is expensive. It’d be hard to do this meeting for less than $4000. Even for Australians, this was an expensive meeting; fewer than 100 Australians had registered. By recent standards, this meeting was poorly attended, and the consensus was that it was because the meeting was expensive.
I was one of the delegates representing my chapter for the International Meeting. One feature of this Meeting is the decision about the next social insect congress, four years in the future. There were a couple options available, which varied in geography, timing, and location.
By a 2:1 vote, the delegates chose the more expensive destination in a resort town. The cost of the registration is expected to be, again, extraordinarily expensive. The conference itself will be housed in a 5-star beach resort hotel, with rooms costing $250/night. This city doesn’t even have network of hostels, as it caters to upscale tourists. It’s hard to imagine many grad students and postdocs making it to this meeting. We made the same mistake, yet again.
It’s no coincidence that the delegates choosing the location are well-salaried senior researchers from around the world. They were voting for themselves, not for their students. There are a variety of reasons to favor one site over another. However, it’s pretty clear that the cost of the meeting wasn’t a variable that entered into the decision-making process. What was rather amazing to me was that nobody seemed concerned about the cost of the conference at all, and the selected location in a 5-star resort was the subject of humor rather than concern for students.
I was lucky enough to have three of my students join me at the IUSSI meeting this year (because they already had been in the country doing research. It’s a long story). It’s not odd that they were the only undergrads at an international meeting, but there were not nearly as many other students at the meeting as I would have hoped. I also missed many other junior faculty colleagues, who weren’t there because the meeting cost too much.
Our meetings aren’t that useful if it’s just senior researchers talking amongst themselves, which happens outside conferences anyway. These occasions are critical opportunities for students, and we should prioritize the potential for student participation in meetings. Which means that we have to choose reasonably priced locations and venues. Even if it means we don’t get a fancy beach vacation.