The Value of Attending Scientific Meetings

by Keith Seitter, CCM, AMS Executive Director
There was a time when I thought scientific conferences would change character dramatically as the tools available for remote connections among participants became more sophisticated.  I have come to realize, however, that as useful as videoconferencing can be in some situations, and despite the efficiency it offers in terms of reducing the need for travel, it cannot replace the value of physical participation in a scientific conference.  That is because hearing and seeing someone give a presentation do not represent the principal value of these meetings — it is the interactions among those who are present. When I was a graduate student, a senior scientist once told me that he went to conferences specifically for the discussions in the hallway. He said that is where the real scientific progress occurs.  While that may be an extreme way of looking at this, I eventually began to understand why he felt that way.
Over the course of a meeting, while we hear speakers present the essence of their results in their allotted 15 minutes, or describe what they can to fit onto the real estate of a poster board, we are challenged to make connections between what we are seeing and hearing and our own work.  The questions asked within a session, or that we overhear, may spark additional connections, and our discussions with colleagues — or new acquaintances we make through shared interest in the topic at hand — can forge partnerships and collaborations that lead to new innovative ideas or new avenues of study.  We are not just passively learning about other ongoing research at the meeting.  We could do that by simply reading prepared papers or reviewing electronic posters at our leisure.  Our being there among other attendees doing similar work and grappling with similar challenges energizes the scientific and creative process within all of us.  I suspect that most of us come back from a scientific conference with renewed vigor for our work and sometimes entirely new approaches to it.
For the annual meeting in Austin next month, it seems clear that a number of Federal employees who would normally be at the meeting will unable to attend due to the restrictions placed on government travel in light of budget issues.  This is truly unfortunate — especially given the meeting theme of taking predictions to the next level, which is such a core issue for those working in NOAA and other government agencies.
There are some individuals outside our community who question the need for scientific conferences, or at least, the expense of having many scientists traveling to these meetings.  It can be argued, however, that the cost of travel to a scientific conference is returned many times over by the things that can be accomplished by the attendees over the course of those few intense days, as well as by the creative productivity they bring back to their institution after the meeting.  I hope the value of scientific conferences to the nation will be more fully recognized in the coming months and we will not see ongoing travel restrictions of the type that have challenged the community in recent months.