Does Size Matter?

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.
SFNsights2006_9.jpg
SfN 2006 Poster Session
The 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.

27 responses so far

  • I've lowered my standards for what to expect from such a large meeting. It's my goal to see two good posters (or talks) in the a.m., and two in the p.m. If I accomplish that much, I pat myself on the badge (happily clipped to my shoulder) and stop angsting about what I'm missing.
    After all, I would consider any day when I read 4 good papers to be a useful day.

  • juniorprof says:

    At SFN I just wander around and see what I see and talk to whoever I talk to. Its like going shopping in Milan, with a big budget and an empty closet.

  • bsci says:

    I'm more than a bit strange, but I really like SFN. I think part of this is that there's no annual small meeting that really spans my interests. Small meetings are inefficient for me since it doesn't help if I can attend every talk if only half the talks interest me. Closeness to the big cheeses don't matter as much if I don't know half the big cheeses in attendance, and most of the big cheeses I'm interested in meeting aren't even there. (I like small meetings, but the benefit is less than people with a single-field research focus)
    What I like about SFN is that it's not one meeting. It's hundreds of meetings and you can choose which talks comprise your own meeting. Using Mike F's example, if only 1% of the 15,000 presentations at SFN interest me, I'm still attending an intereting 150 presentation conference. Besides the far mathematical/engineering end of my interests, everything is there. What's also great is that in my own sub-meeting, I tend to keep bumping into some of the same people and that helps me see a community of common interests that doesn't appear at single small meetings. The key to make this work is enough advanced planning to make sure I know what I want to see in advance. (I am one of those people walking around with sheets of closely-typed schedules... though I'm not as frantically running between rooms as I did in my grad student days). I also learned to avoid most talks because it's rare I find a room where a series of talks is worthwhile to me and running 3/4mile across the convention center to a room for one or two 10min talks is a waste of time and energy.
    That all said, it's really hard to categorize presentations at large conferences and the only thing worse than an SFN poster orphaned in a section of completely unrelated posters is an SFN talk orphaned in a session with unrelated talks - like my talk this year. Make me wonder why I signed up for a talk (higher profile?)

  • It's all about Ski-stone, baby

  • CC says:

    Its like going shopping in Milan...
    I went to a conference in Milan, once. I still use the souvenir bag for my laptop when I'm wearing a suit and my everyday padded bag just isn't sharp enough to complement it. In contrast to the dorktastic bags every other meeting gives out, where I always decline to take them because a) why would I need another bag and b) they're so hideous that even my limited fashion sense is physically repelled by them.
    That's the other advantage: those small meetings can be held in cool places that can't accommodate an MD-heavy monster.

  • Liam says:

    I take DM's approach: one large meeting (SFN) and one smaller meeting (RSA) per year. Both are great networking opportunities, but perhaps in different ways. SFN allows me to meet people outside my field and RSA allows me to rub elbows with the Big Guns in the field.
    As far as presentations go, SFN's diversity is its strength, I can explore many different topics in addition to my usual interests. RSA, of course, is more focused on the issues that are the bread and butter of my lab.
    Just my 2 cents.

  • miko says:

    I love SfN!
    Last year I ran into dozens of people I knew without even trying. I was offered 3 postdocs. I had more *interested* poster traffic than every other meeting I've been to combined. It was easy to find the right poster "neighborhoods."
    One drawback.. the SWAG sucked. I was hoping for like a green Zeiss laser pointer or something. The best I got was a retractable pen and a free electrode.
    I have to say, however, that the other best meeting I've been to was in Japan and tiny... a PI to student/postdoc ration of 1:1 was mandated. These are the meetings were you get the leaders in your field arguing during slides. This can be tedious and annoying or fascinating, depending whether the particular "leaders" are blowhard fossils or actual intellectuals, but we got lucky.

  • Nat says:

    I'm right with you on all your points DM. Like miko and bsci, I actually really love SfN. There's just so much to see if you want to, and though it might be hard to believe, miko's point about just bumping into people without trying actually does happen all the time.
    But having just got back from a small meeting, I see their upsides as well. Unfortunately I had never been encouraged to go to any small meetings in the past, though I'm not sure why particularly, since there are at least a couple that would be an appropriate fit.

  • funkyneuron says:

    I don't see the problem with big meetings; the science is not different , there is just more of it. Personally, I am easy when it comes to meetings: I'll take whatever I can get!

  • heart and soul says:

    The best conference bag I ever got was from a Women in Science meeting. It is hot pink, made of tough stuff, and designed to double as a swimming recreational bag after the conference (great for mothers too). I swear by mine, it is so useful I have even tried to score an extra.

  • yolio says:

    Big meetings often have workshops ahead of time. I have found that this is usually a good chance for me to spend a day or two gaining some random skill, and then I feel like I accomplished something. The rest of the schmooze-fest is just gravy.
    As for the meeting itself, I use a sit and wait predator strategy. I spend much of the meeting parked at a table in a high traffic spot working on my laptop. Eventually, just about everyone walks by me with that dazed/glazed big meeting expression---I just knab the best ones.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Big meetings often have workshops ahead of time. I have found that this is usually a good chance for me to spend a day or two gaining some random skill, and then I feel like I accomplished something.
    The pre-meetings that I focus on tend to be either the meetings of sub-sub-sub-field societies (you wouldn't believe....) or symposia hosted by a funding agency, such as NIDA's Frontiers in Addiction Research. These latter can be good in showing you what your funding IC thinks is really important and if you track it you will see the funding opportunities related to these interests come flying out over the following year or two (or four, there's an interesting MDMA-related story in the not-so-distant past...).

  • qaz says:

    The key to very large meetings like SFN is that each person creates their own meeting. Because we all cross multiple fields (particularly in a highly interdisciplinary field like neuroscience), there are no meetings that match all of our interests. When I go to a meeting like SFN, I am effectively going to a unique meeting, that includes all of the things *I* need. When drug monkey goes to SFN, DM is going to a unique meeting that includes all of DM's favorite topics (which may intersect, but won't be the same as mine).
    If I had to go to a meeting for each of the six or seven projects I have running, I would be spending my life traveling and never get any work done. Instead, I can go to SFN, spend the morning talking hippocampus, the afternoon talking striatum, and the evening arguing addiction. I find that I often get more out of each day of SFN than I do in week at a smaller meeting. Of course, by the time I get home after five days of SFN, I'm exhausted... but SFN, like most holidays, only happens once a year.

  • River Tam says:

    I also attend one large and one small conference (though I now wonder what you all mean by small....do you guys consider 5k intimate?). I find the large conference useful for keeping up with colleagues and keeping my finger on what the hop topics in my field and how people are thinking about things. The smaller conferences serve other purposes - good venues for me to introduce my graduate students to presenting research, etc.
    I also employ yolio's sit and wait strategy at the big meetings. It helps me find all the people I need to touch base with and keeps my feet looking pretty in those "stylish"* Tevas sandals all of us ecologists wear.
    * and by "stylish" I mean would probably make Isis throw up a little in the back of her throat!

  • You're absolutely right, River. I read "stylish"* Tevas sandals and it was like a reflex how the vurp appeared.
    However, because I totally adore you, I will let this fashion faux pas slide. But only for you, River. Only for you.
    And only this once.

  • Mike_F says:

    Many of the pro-mega-meeting comments fall into the "...there's no annual small meeting that really spans my interests..." category. Rather than viewing this as a problem, I would suggest to take it as an opportunity to initiate your very own interdisciplinary meeting. Submitting a proposal for e.g. a new EMBO workshop or Gordon Research Conference (these are just a couple of examples, there are quite a few other options for such meeting funding) can be very rewarding, and if the meeting succeeds and a series is established, you have the satisfaction (and recognition) of being one of the founding members of the club.
    That said, if you prefer to seek the 150 people you really want to see at a gathering of 30,000, I suppose I should be thankful to you for subsidizing the production costs of the Journal of Neuroscience...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I joined the SfN in 1979, when the Society reached a membership of about 5,000. I have attneded almost every annual meeting since then and until 2002. After that I just could not justify any longer spending the increasing costs of registration and lodging for my crew and myself or sharing a hotel room with my snoring colleagues. I have organized throughout my career several small international meetings, funding them with NIH conference grants and scientific societies grants. I also found several journals that were more than willing to publish both the abstracts of the meeting prior to the meeting date and the presentations of the invited speakers as full papers in a special issue of the journal after the meeting. The enthusiasm of the participants and staying financially in the black allowed me to repeat the venture. There are still societies out there that conduct scientific meeting bi-annually that despite the few thousands participants, manage to encompass the essence of the field, such as the International Society for Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism and, of course, small meetings such as the Gordon Research conferences that carry a long and successful tradition.

  • I joined the SfN in 1979, when the Society reached a membership of about 5,000.
    1979?!? Wow, I joined the realm of the potty-trained in 1979!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Isis dear,
    What exactly is your point? Try to be honest in your response and without the insults, please!

  • Isis says:

    Sol, there was neither a point nor an insult. Yours truly was simply stating a fact. You mentioned a year and I mentioned what I was doing in that year. I think, perhaps, you're being a bit too sensitive.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Me, sensitive? Nah! After being on the receiving end of PP's scatological tirades and you're calling me an idiot I should have a thick skin. I was just wondering about the meaning of the year you begun your potty-training, as if you remember anything from that period that has contibuted to your experimental scientific research capability or grant application writing. šŸ˜‰

  • (sigh)
    Sol, this goddess grows weary of these tiresome yet meaningles Internet feuds. Sometmes a cryotube is just a cryotube.

  • PM says:

    Get a room, you two.

  • NeuroStudent says:

    At my first SfN I walked into the poster session hall and immediately turned around, walked out and went to this cute little pizza place near the conference center that served sangria...two glasses later I was ready to go back... In subsequent years I've chilled out and learned not to plan out my schedule in detail as I'll never make it to everything--I generally have a couple of key posters that I want to see and a couple of talks, but the rest of the time I wander through the posters in the rows that generally hold what I'm interested in.
    I love SfN--I get an adrenaline rush seeing that much science in one place, but I must say that the two small meetings (200-300 attendees) I've been to have been much more productive for me.

  • Nat says:

    That said, if you prefer to seek the 150 people you really want to see at a gathering of 30,000, I suppose I should be thankful to you for subsidizing the production costs of the Journal of Neuroscience.
    Well, J Neurosci actually runs in the black every year, so guess that if your meeting fees are subsidizing anything, it's SfN other activities. Though it does make me wonder what percent of the annual meeting expenses are paid via registration fees versus charges to vendors and exhibitors. One benefit of the bigger meeting is that every vendor is there. And they don't go for free obviously.
    Besides, going to Neuroscience isn't significantly more expensive than going to a smaller meeting, so whether you see those people there or at a smaller meeting, it's a wash IMO.

  • juniorprof says:

    One benefit of the bigger meeting is that every vendor is there
    One big huge fat benefit. I've gotten hook-up after hook-up from companies at SFN. Not to mention you generally actually get to meet the people that actually engineer the equipment and have the opportunity to give your input on devices you'd like to see made.

  • CC says:

    I also attend one large and one small conference (though I now wonder what you all mean by small....do you guys consider 5k intimate?).
    "Intimate" is when by the time you leave you know every attendee by name, or at least by face. Even "small" I'd cap at around 500 people.
    It's all about Ski-stone, baby.
    For attending, definitely. For presenting, it's a bit frustrating as your audience is pow-crazed at earlier sessions and exhausted and altitude-sick at later ones.

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