The annual meeting of a scientific society is a fixture in many scientific disciplines. The scientific society itself is mechanism to draw together subfields which focus on topics as general as immunology, neuroscience or physiology and as narrow as drug abuse, pain or Parkinson's Disease. I'm sure many non-bio -ologies have similar arrays of scientific societies. Many of such scientific societies exist in large part to organize annual meetings for their membership and other interested scientists. The meeting affords a regular opportunity for scientists who work in geographically disparate locations to discuss their areas of scientific interest with a group of peers who share those interests. A typical meeting might last about 5 days and consist of a series of presentations from scientists on their latest work.
SfN 2006 Poster SessionThe question for the day was raised when a discussion on a prior post veered into the question of meeting size. Commenter Mike_F observed:
I think this issue of meeting size deserves a separate thread. Personally I subscribe to the notion that that if you don't go to SFN you miss 100% of the meeting, while if you do go you miss 99.99%... . I would much rather invest the time and energy in an EMBO workshop or Gordon Conference in my field, where attendance is "only" ~100-150, but that invariably includes most of the movers and shakers of the field.
What is the ideal size for the scientific meeting?
I think we can blame the original diversion into this issue on juniorprof:
is SFN the biggest of the big scientific meetings? is it possible that it is the biggest annual convention of scientific knowledge in the history of humankind? Just curious, if anyone knows. Either way, I can't imagine a single event that could satisfy the "i just wanna know stuff" itch better than SFN.
Which is actually a critical point in the favor of the (very) large scientific meeting. The breadth of the scientific work on offer is a tremendous plus because of the presence of seemingly unrelated research threads that one can draw together into cool new ideas. Similarly, the large meeting offers the opportunity to meet/reconnect with scientists a bit farther afield from your most narrowly defined subfield of interest. New applications for techniques, translation of ideas and the alignment of seemingly disconnected areas of research can be very powerful tools for advancing scientific inquiry in my view.
Funding agencies are all present at the largest meetings, as are many vendors of scientific equipment, reagents and supplies. In my case, the several NIH ICs of interest to my work are all there instead of just the one or two that you would find at smaller meetings. I like the NIDA folks, sure, but I also need to talk with NIMH, NIAAA, NICHD, NIA and other program people. SfN is the place for me to do this.
So why not just have very large meetings of widely construed -ologies? Well, large meetings come with a cost. Two of the bigger ones that I attend are the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) and Experimental Biology, the biggest annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. As was noted in that prior conversation, scientific participants at the 2007 SfN meeting numbered about 27,000 (~32,000 total) and Experimental Biology reported 13,289 total registrants (10,456 scientific registrants) for 2006 and anticipates about 14,000 total registrants for 2008. These numbers shock people in some other scientific disciplines.
Your meetings are bigger than some towns I've lived in! That's just wrong. Never thought Ecology's "big" meeting of 4k would look....quaint. How do you get anything done at these things?
Good question, River Tam, additional graphical representation of the problem can be found on this site (page down a bit) and this blog although even snapshots of the poster floor cannot really do justice. Commenter S. Rivlin levied the same essential criticism of the large meeting:
One learns so much more from small, more specified meetings than from huge ones where 50% of your time is spent walking looking either for the location of the presentations you interested in or for your colleagues.
I totally agree that the SfN size of meeting can be maddening, exhausting and seem like a waste of time. Some of this requires learning to make your peace with a meeting of this type and understand what you can and cannot accomplish there. You know how you see these bloodshot-eyed grad students limping around the floor with their sheaf of closely-typed schedules? Yeah, you gotta get over that. You simply are not going to be able to see everything you "should" see at a meeting of this type. That is what small meetings are for.
I also attend the annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence which reported 1,230 scientific registrants in 2007 [additional meeting summaries with attendance data and geek-pictures]. I've blogged on this meeting a time or two. There are other even smaller meetings which I attend at varying frequencies.
It is indeed true that the efficiency of the smaller meeting is much higher. One may never have to miss a presentation of interest due to simultaneous occurrence of 1 or more other interesting presentations a good 10 min walk across the mega Convention Center. Poster sessions frequently occur at a different time than do slide talks. Roundtables or focus groups may be scheduled for times at which no other presentations are scheduled. Etc.
On the interpersonal and schmoozing side, it is vastly easier to find people at the small meeting. Easier to, say, run across the big cheese in the restroom. Perhaps the after-meeting dining and drinking activities are limited to a smaller subset of restaurants and bars leading to increased opportunity for networking. If only one hotel is involved, ditto the pool-side networking (for you and your SmarterHalf spouse and DropDeadAdorable kids- oh yes, believe it....but that is a topic for another day, I fear).
I come to the following advice in terms of mentoring and in terms of my own plans. I would suggest that having at least one very large meeting and one small/medium meeting in your regular schedule is a very good idea. In this way you get the benefits of each type of meeting. There may be some degree of overlap, sure, but in most cases you can spend your time at the large meeting focusing away from the people/topics you will see at the small meeting.