The How and Why of Scientific Meetings
by Anne Egger, Ph.D., Anthony Carpi, Ph.D.
Did you know that scientific journals can take more than a year to publish an article after it is submitted? This is one reason why scientific meetings are so important to the process of science. Meetings allow researchers to share work in the scientific community and get feedback before a study is submitted for formal review.
Scientific meetings and conferences play an important role in the process of science. This module describes the history of scientific societies, beginning with the Royal Society of London in 1660. Specific examples illustrate why scientists go to meetings, how these gatherings influence research, and why attending meetings can be important for students and new scientists.
Terms you should knowtoggle-menu
conference = a large, formal meeting where many people gather for a particular purpose, such as to talk about research in a certain field of science
society = a group of people who belong to an organization that has been formed because of shared interest in specific field
presentation = the act of giving a talk to a group of people, such as a conference session in which a scientist shares new research
On April 20, 2010, the Horizon Deepwater drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, starting an unprecedented oil spill that continued for 3 months. The details of that event were chronicled extensively in the popular media: The New York Times alone lists 775 articles about the spill (New York Times, 2010), and thousands of journalists were on the scene to report the day-to-day progression of the spill.
Scientists were on the scene, too (see Figure 1). Scientific agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), funded rapid response teams of scientists to collect data, perform experiments, monitor water and air quality, and model the spread of the oil plume in the critical days after the explosion. But while the journalists got their stories out immediately, the scientists had more work to do. Data collection might happen quickly, but processing, analyzing, and understanding the implications of those data and then submitting findings to be peer reviewed prior to publication can take much longer. As a result, some early findings from these rapid response studies were presented first at scientific meetings, such as the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) held in San Francisco in December of 2010.
In a series of sessions entitled "Lessons Learned from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill," dozens of scientists reported on the results of their research on the spread of the oil, the effects of the chemical dispersants on the oil and marine life, the effects of the spill on the coastal ecosystems, the amount of methane released into the air above the Gulf of Mexico, and much more. The meeting provided an ideal opportunity to present these new findings to a broad community, both to inform the community of exciting new research and to get feedback quickly.
The purpose of scientific meetings
Scientific meetings are one of the primary venues for scientists to present their new work to their colleagues with the purpose of receiving feedback at an early stage of their research, and thus they are an integral part of the process of science. They serve as an informal peer review that can help researchers to develop, clarify, and refine their work as they proceed to write it up and submit it for formal review and final publication. In addition, meetings allow researchers to hear about what others in their field and related disciplines are doing, talk with colleagues from different institutions around the world, and learn about new research, tools, and techniques that might be relevant to their work.
Some meetings are small and narrowly focused on a specific topic or theme, while others are meant to bring many thousands of scientists together annually and are very broad. Regardless of the size of the meeting, the main goal is to bring a community of scientists together and provide opportunities for them to interact.
The development of the modern scientific meeting
Groups of men (and they were, in fact, all men) interested in discussing science met as early as 1640 in London; eventually, these meetings led to the establishment of the Royal Society of London in 1660 (Gribbin, 2007) (see Scientific Institutions and Societies). Since then, scientific societies and meetings have grown together. Early meetings remained small and local for about 200 years since transportation was difficult and costly, but larger meetings began to proliferate (along with scientific societies) in the mid-1800s.
For example, a group of scientists gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 20, 1848, with the goal of establishing a new national-scale organization: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They held six days of talks and presentations by prospective members and, by the end of the meeting, had 461 registered members on the books (Kohlstedt et al., 1999). Louis Agassiz, one of the founders, worked with two other scientists to draft the "Rules and Objectives of the Association," which stated that one of the fundamental goals of the new society was, "By periodical and migratory meetings, to promote intercourse between those who are cultivating science in different parts of the United States" (as quoted in Kohlstedt et al., 1999). In other words, they recognized that scientists were at work all over the country, and they hoped to overcome geographic barriers that kept scientists apart by holding regular meetings that moved around the country.
Another goal of the new society was "to give a stronger and... more systematic direction to scientific research in our country" (as quoted in Kohlstedt et al., 1999). The new society, therefore, would not only provide an opportunity to bring the community together through meetings, but would guide research through consensus of the membership. At the first AAAS meeting in 1848, a group of new members – still all men – wrote three resolutions to influence research directions in the United States. One of these resolutions was to establish a committee to address "the Secretary of the Navy, requesting his further aid in procuring for Lieut. Maury the use of the observations of European and other foreign navigators, for the extension and perfecting of his charts of winds and currents" (AAAS, 1848). The support of a wide group of scientists may have eventually helped Lieutenant Maury hold an international meeting in 1853 to establish standards for weather measurements (see Data Analysis and Interpretation). In many cases, meetings still provide the opportunity to bring the membership of a society together to vote on resolutions or position statements and to give direction to future research.
AAAS is a broad society, and its meetings include presentations from all disciplines in science, including the social sciences. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, groups of scientists organized into more discipline-specific societies as well, which hosted their own meetings to bring their members together. For example, the American Chemical Society (ACS) was established in 1876; the founding of the Ecological Society of America was proposed at a meeting of ecologists in 1914 and officially formed in 1915 at its inaugural meeting; the American Geophysical Union held its first meeting in 1919. All four of these societies continue to hold annual meetings open to their large and diverse memberships (ACS, for example, now has over 163,000 members), which also are now much more diverse than their original membership of largely white males. Today, there are hundreds of scientific conferences every year hosted by a wide variety of organizations.
As membership in these disciplinary organizations and attendance at annual meetings grew, scientists recognized another need for communication: smaller, more focused meetings that addressed a specific theme or topic. In 1931, Neil Gordon (see Figure 2), a chemist at Johns Hopkins University, brought together a small group of scientists working at the "frontiers of research" to give them the opportunity to work together intensely for five days (Daemmrich, Gray, & Shaper, 2006). Over time, these meetings evolved to the Gordon Research Conferences, a non-profit organization that runs over 200 meetings a year. Each of these meetings is proposed by a group of scientists who wish to focus on a topic, so new topical meetings are held every year. These meetings average about 140 attendees, where an annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union might have as many as 16,000 attendees.
Why scientists go to meetings
Going to and presenting at meetings is a common component of most scientists' lives, especially those who work at universities and research laboratories. They go to scientific meetings in order to present new work and get feedback from their peers, make connections with other scientists, learn new things, and get together with friends and colleagues.
For example, at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America, Anne Egger presented the results of using some of the Visionlearning modules, like the one you are reading now, in college science classrooms. One of her goals was to get feedback on her work teaching students about the nature of scientific theories in preparation for publishing her results. A comment she received in response to the talk was particularly helpful, pointing out that the meaning of "theory" in the social sciences is different from both the scientific and colloquial definitions – an interesting and relevant point that had been overlooked in analysis. This useful feedback can be incorporated into future publications. Several weeks later, Egger received an email from a scientist and university professor who had been at the meeting: He had seen her presentation and was wondering if he could use the materials she had discussed. This is one example of what many scientists call "dissemination" – presenting their work to a broad audience in hopes that it will get used and incorporated into others' work. During that same meeting, Egger walked through several poster sessions and came across someone who had done new geologic mapping in Mesa Verde National Park, where she teaches a class. She talked to the scientist and was able to download his new map, which she can now incorporate into her teaching.
Sometimes, meeting attendees seek out particular presentations or scientists in order to make new connections. After a presentation he made at the 2008 Ocean Sciences meeting, Kevin Arrigo, a biological oceanographer at Stanford University, was approached by a scientist in charge of a funding program at NASA. She wanted to work with him to develop a new funding program to study biological oceanography in the Arctic (see our research profile Studying Climate Change with Kevin Arrigo for more information). In this case, dissemination of results at a meeting catalyzed the development of a whole new research area. As Arrigo said, "You never know who's going to be in the audience."
On the other hand, meetings are also an opportunity for students and beginning scientists to meet other people in their field and to begin to establish professional relationships. For example, when Anthony Carpi had completed his MS thesis at Cornell University and was seeking a PhD project, he began searching for someone to serve as his dissertation advisor, but was coming up empty handed. His MS advisor offered to fund his travel to a 1994 conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant to present his master's work and to search for dissertation projects/advisors. At the conference, he approached a scientist whose work he had read, Steve Lindberg from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Lindberg listened to his ideas, gave him some quick feedback, suggested some additional literature to read, and asked him to follow up after the conference. Carpi did so, and applied for scholarships that fund students (or scientists) to go to national labs to do research. As a result of that brief encounter at a meeting, Carpi spent eight months working with Lindberg at Oak Ridge National Lab, research that allowed him to complete his PhD and publish three journal articles.
These individual stories are not unique. In a 2004 survey of over 1000 scientific conference attendees (Aiken, 2006),
66% of respondents reported learning something that changed the direction of their research.
Just over half indicated that something they had learned at the meeting had saved them time and money in their own work.
60% reported that their meeting attendance led to a new collaboration.
All of these are common gains from attending meetings.
Beyond allowing scientists to get together to share their work, scientific meetings are also important social events. After the first meeting of AAAS in 1848, one of the founders, William Barton Rogers, wrote:
For us, such reunions of the scientific brethren... are of precious value and form the best compensation we can enjoy for the prolonged restraints of our vocation. What new impulses to exertion, what encouragement and guidance do they not give? ...how many cheering and delightful social recollections?
Meetings are full of formal and informal times to interact with friends and colleagues, and these often prove to be both socially and professionally productive. Many scientific meetings have planned social events such as dinners or receptions, but the halls of scientific meetings are usually filled with scientists talking in pairs or groups (see Figure 3). The conversations range from catching up with friends to discussing a new collaborative research project or debating the interpretation of results in the talk they just heard. Despite the proliferation of web-based communication, scientists still place value on attending meetings, in part because of the informal opportunities to interact with other scientists (O'Brien, 2006).
At large meetings, such as the annual American Geophysical Union meeting described earlier, the media are in attendance, and their job is to disseminate these new scientific findings to the general public. Science journalists, freelance science writers, and public information officers at scientific institutions can get press passes in order to attend the sessions without having to pay the registration fee. Blogs are now also a common part of scientific meetings, with frequent posts by the organization hosting the meeting, and links to scientists' and journalists' blogs that are focused on the meeting proceedings. All of the media involvement helps spread the word about new scientific findings beyond the community of science and out to the general public.
Attending a meeting
Spending a day or two at a meeting held by a scientific society like AAAS or AGU offers a glimpse into how the scientific community functions. At most meetings, there are both oral and poster presentations. In an oral presentation, presenters generally have 15-20 minutes to present their research and take a few questions. Usually, there are also longer keynote addresses that are given by prominent scientists and present a major theme of the meeting. Talks are grouped into topical sessions that last 1-2 hours, and there are usually multiple concurrent topical sessions. People who give oral presentations are usually at or near the culmination of their research, because the time allowed for questions is not enough to get detailed feedback. In a poster presentation, presenters make a poster displaying their research and stand with their poster for an hour or two (or perhaps more), explaining their work, answering questions, and talking with others. Posters are grouped together in large sessions, often with hundreds of posters up at once, and people wander through long rows (see Figure 4). Because this type of presentation allows a lot more time to interact with people, this is a good way to get feedback on work in progress.
When attending a scientific meeting, it is a good idea to look at the program in advance and plan a strategy. Read abstracts to choose which talks and posters to see. Because they have only a short amount of time, oral presenters tend to talk fast and use a lot of jargon, so it helps to be familiar with the subject. There is usually more time to get explanations from people at their posters – ask questions and find out more about the work. If you are a student, meetings are also a great place to find out more about graduate schools. In addition to asking people questions about their research, ask them about the institution where they study or teach. Often, there are areas at the meeting where schools set up information booths about their graduate programs.
Attending a scientific meeting is invigorating, though it can also be exhausting and overwhelming for even experienced scientists. Time spent at a meeting results in new ideas and new collaborations as well as recognition of research accomplishments, all of which help generate the energy, creativity, and enthusiasm that help drive the process of science.
Scientific meetings bring scientists from all over the world together to communicate the results of new research.
The growth of scientific meetings is closely tied to the growth and development of scientific societies since the 1800s.
Individual scientists attend meetings in order to get feedback and disseminate their work, make connections with scientists in their field and beyond, and learn about new research, tools, and ideas.
AAAS. (1848). Committee to Request Aid for Lieut. Maury's Work on Navigational Charts. AAAS Archives Site.
Daemmrich, A. A., Gray, N. R., & Shaper, L. (Eds.). (2006). Reflections from the frontiers, explorations for the future: Gordon Research Conferences, 1931-2006. Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Gribbin, J., 2007, The fellowship: Gilbert, Bacon, Harvey, Wren, Newton, and the story of a scientific revolution. London: Overlook Hardcover.
Kohlstedt, S. G., Sokal, M. M., & Lewenstein, B. V. (1999). The establishment of science in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
The New York Times. (2010). Times topics: Gulf of Mexico oil spill (2010).
Anne Egger, Ph.D., Anthony Carpi, Ph.D. “The How and Why of Scientific Meetings” Visionlearning Vol. POS-3 (3), 2011.
Free and constant intellectual communication between scientists is essential for the health of science, and frequent personal contact is very desirable.
~ Francis Crick and others, in a letter to Nature