Go Big or Go Home

Decision by the American Society for Microbiology to scale back number of small conferences highlights pressures on the economics of scholarly gatherings.

June 23, 2017
 

The American Society of Microbiology last month announced plans to significantly scale back its small-conference organizing, putting more pressure on what some see as an already undervalued chance for networking.

As opposed to its large and medium annual conferences -- such as ASM Microbe, which is billed as the world’s largest gathering of microbiologists -- which draw thousands of professors, researchers and academics from across the field, ASM’s small conferences typically draw crowds in the hundreds. Those conferences are more narrowly focused to specific fields, such as biofilms or beneficial microbes. Attendees say the small sizes create more intimate spaces for networking among colleagues, especially for younger members. But they also can be costlier to run than their big-ticket counterparts. (Other large scholarly societies organize small conferences for people from certain regions or states.)

“Small conferences consistently trending down in attendance,” ASM CEO Stefano Bertuzzi wrote in a tweet to professors talking about the decision. “ASM not able to continue absorbing financial losses.”

David Hooper, chair of ASM’s meeting board, said that the society has organized eight to 10 small conferences a year, on average, but will be scaling back to about two -- including the conference on biofilms -- although the number isn’t set in stone. While the small conferences were costly, and attendance was decreasing, he said the decision to cut back on small conferences was part of a wide-ranging re-evaluation of the organization’s finances. Hosted in New Orleans over five days, ASM Microbe, which advertised bringing in about 10,000 people, featured an exhibit and poster hall, industry workshops and close to 600 speakers. The smaller conferences, held with less fanfare, also typically bring in fewer people and have to be subsidized by the society.

“With deficit budgets and a new CEO, we had to have a strategic relook at the whole sort of range of ASM programs,” Hooper said. “It wasn’t just meetings that were being looked at, but the spectrum of all the activities that ASM was doing.”

“Looking at the conferences program, we thought now’s the time to step back and restructure this in a way that our portfolio may be a bit smaller. Obviously there are positives to having smaller meetings -- people do like those. We want to keep having smaller conferences, but they need to be sustainable, of course, financially,” he said, adding that the smaller conferences will probably be tailored to “cutting-edge” topics in microbiology.

Joerg Graf, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Connecticut who has attended both large and small conferences over the course of his career, said he respected ASM’s clout in the field of microbiology, and that scaling back its small-conference organizing wasn’t a move the organization would take lightly.

“The American Society for Microbiology is a very important organization in this field, and I think ASM conferences were very important in how the American Society for Microbiology was able to reach out, especially to early-career scientists, and provide them with cutting-edge information and also provide opportunities to network with established investigators. Losing those conferences would restrict those opportunities,” he said. “But ASM really has to make difficult decisions.”

Graf said that throughout his years attending ASM conferences and meetings both large and small, the smaller ones provided an intimate space for young researchers to network and offered more specific programming focused on microbiology’s various fields.

“When there are 6,000 attendees, it is very challenging for a graduate student to find time to meet with a faculty member,” he said. At smaller conferences, by contrast, shared lunches, dinners and receptions can help young members make connections.

“Those are all opportunities where it’s very easy, and it’s not an intimidating environment for graduate students to interact with faculty,” he said.

Still, Graf said, large ASM conferences are useful for learning about fields outside one’s specialty. Offering some hope for younger scientists, he highlighted other ways outside ASM to find intimate settings, such as the Gordon Research Conferences and the Keystone Symposia.

Mark Mandel, a professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University, said he plans to keep holding a conference on beneficial microbes that has previously been affiliated with ASM, although it will most likely have to be outside the scope of ASM going forward.

“What we see is consistently 200 people attend, and they’re passionate, they’re energetic,” he said. “So now when we try to continue that energy, we’re now doing that outside of the organization of the larger society. It seems like there’s less energy to be poured into the organization.”

For his part, Hooper said that ASM has listened to feedback to improve the large and medium ASM meetings for younger faculty.

“We spend a lot of time focusing on both input and involvement from junior faculty and trainees for the programming and the presentation of these meetings,” he said. “They’re the future of any society.”

When pressures working against small conferences arise, however, so do pressures on small colleges’ budgets to send professors and students to conferences of any size. Jason Pickavance, director of educational initiatives at Salt Lake Community College, was a frequent attendee of the Two-Year College English Association’s conferences for its Western division during his days as an English professor. He said he still attends TYCA-West when it comes to Salt Lake.

Pickavance wrote in an essay for Inside Higher Ed that smaller conferences as a whole are often underappreciated for their value and the “authenticity” they provide for faculty, all at a relatively low cost.

“It’s not like [large conferences] are evil,” Pickavance said. “I don’t know what they would do to make it different. It’s less a critique of large conferences than it is praising small conferences.”

Geography can play a role in restructuring conferences, Mandel said. The Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phages Meeting consolidated its bouncing locations, settling on hosting the conferences only in Madison, Wis., instead of rotating between Madison and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on New York’s Long Island, every other year. On the other hand, Mandel said, conferences aimed at specific regions can still benefit from rotating locations -- as the Midwest Microbial Pathogens Conference does -- without racking up huge expenditures for attendees, since the rotating location is never too far.

When it comes to travel, registration and lodging costs associated with attending conferences, smaller gatherings can be easier on a college’s travel budget. TYCA-West bounces between Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, keeping those costs to a minimum, Pickavance said.

And with higher education budgets being tight, those savings -- and the benefits smaller conferences can provide -- can mean an outsize impact on those who attend.

“That continued pressure on travel budgets makes small conferences all the more important,” Pickavance said. “The regional small conference, in my mind, is going to become more important in an age where, maybe, travel budgets become more scarce. You can’t go to Boston or San Diego -- expensive flight, expensive city, expensive registration. If I go to Phoenix, well, I have family there, so I can stay for free.”

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