Conferences need students: make them affordable


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.

7 thoughts on “Conferences need students: make them affordable

  1. I agree, I think this is a really important issue and something we struggle with on the ATBC council. My impression of the Cairns ATBC meeting was that it had far less students than usual too, given both the expense in getting there and the price of registration, so after reading your post I pulled the numbers. It turns out that while there were fewer attendees in Cairns, the % of students wasn’t really that much lower.

    San Jose, Costa Rica ATBC 2013:
    915 participants from 50 countries, of which 339 were students (37%)

    Cairns, Australia ATBC 2014:
    575 registrations from 47 countries of which 179 were students (31%)
    8 Keynote speakers
    13 complimentary delegates (sponsors)
    5 complimentary exhibitor passes
    99 High Income ATBC members
    134 High Income non-­‐ATBC delegates
    59 High Income ATBC student members
    59 High Income non-­‐ATBC student delegates
    40 Low Income ATBC members
    82 Low Income non-­‐ATBC delegates
    19 Low Income ATBC student members
    42 Low Income non-­‐ATBC student delegates
    15 Day registrations (non-­‐ATBC members)

    So we did have students, just not the students we’re used to seeing – it was the first ATBC where I saw students from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, etc. in larger numbers. ATBC is working hard to be an inclusive, pantropical society, so we try and rotate our meetings around the globe. That means that every year they’re going to be expensive to get to for many if not most of the members.

    But to my mind a bigger issue than the price of the ticket or even registration is the issue of holding meetings in resort towns during high tourist season – hotels and food in Cairns were a fortune! . Unfortunately, we’re really at the mercy of who is willing to organize the meeting and balancing that with the need to rotate around the globe to reach all members. It’s one reason that I think it’s worth exploring something like what the SCB does – biennial international meetings with Regional Chapter activities in the off years.

  2. Thanks for the ATBC data! That’s interesting! I didn’t have much of a gripe about this meeting, as ATBC meeting around the tropics in various parts of the world is part of the mission. And as the numbers show, students are attending to some extent. But IUSSI, which meets only every 4 years, should be more responsible about attempting to draw in students from around the whole world, which means places that are cheap to fly to from around the world and places that are inexpensive to stay in. And nobody seemed to give a damn about it, unlike at ATBC where the future of society and student involvement seems to be at the forefront of at least some of the decisionmakers.

  3. For those of us is more distant parts of the world (such as Australia) pretty much every single conference we might want to go to is expensive because of airfares. I’m not saying cost shouldn’t be a consideration but rather that it’s hard to be too sympathetic!

    So I agree with Emilo – if you want to be really globally inclusive, move the conferences around. Students in North America get a much better deal than students elsewhere in terms of easy conference attendance (I bet many of the North American student who might have gone to this are going to ESA instead so they’re not really missing out).

    If your main criteria was cheap to fly into from most places and cheap to stay in, then most conferences would be in SE Asia… (one flight from Europe, North America, Aust/NZ, South Africa).

    (and Cairns is just as expensive as everywhere else in Australia – salaries here are also higher, e.g. minimum wage = >$16/hr)

  4. This point about PIs needing to pay for students may or may not be true, but doesn’t advance the conversation about leaders in societies making meetings too expensive for junior scientists, many of whom do not come from well-funded labs that can afford meetings.

  5. It’s not part of my job to pay for students and postdocs to go to meetings. It’s part of my job to help them work through the pros and cons of going to a particular meeting and then helping them garner financial support to go to meetings they think are important to attend. Part of this support (or even all of it) might come from in-lab sources, but those sources aren’t always available. And when they are available, some of the “cons” that enters into the decision include “the meeting is a $2000 plane ticket away” and “the only accommodations are the conference hotel at $200 a night”. I think Terry is spot on here.

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