ESA’s Friday Problem

I love the Ecological Society of America. It’s the professional society I call home, not only for its thematic basis, but for the way ESA tends to have a deft touch at blending important science with a relaxed atmosphere, and at providing real opportunities for scientists at every career stage. The annual meeting is a big part of this: from high school students to emeritus professors, if you want to give a talk at ESA, you probably can. Try finding that egalitarian approach at most other societies.

This inclusiveness can be a big deal for students and postdocs. The meeting is a chance to showcase their work, their ideas, their abilities to present science and field questions on the fly. Do it well, and it can help launch a career.

But only if there are people in the audience.

And therein lies a problem common to many professional meetings, but one I believe is especially problematic at ESA – precisely because of its inclusive ethic. If you lose the lottery and get a Friday morning slot, your session will invariably look like this:

Friday AM ESA

That’s a picture from a Friday morning session last year, but it’s by no means an anomaly. Friday morning sessions, with few exceptions, mean speaking to a few of your friends and the others in your session (unless you’re after the break – then the early wave of speakers will probably be gone too). If you’re especially lucky, or a big name in your field, maybe you pull in a few other dedicated souls. But for the most part, it’s row upon row of empty chairs.

For someone fortunate enough to have long-term job security, a Friday draw is largely just an annoyance. Why put time and money into a talk where nobody will come (no, that’s not a Zen riddle)? And indeed, some people in this category wriggle out of their talk commitment following a Friday draw, either by just canceling or by offloading it on a junior co-author. But for a late-stage graduate student in search of a good postdoc, a postdoc hoping to find a job, a pre-tenure professor looking to enhance his or her connections in the business, it’s potentially much worse. The first two classes of young scientists get hit the hardest: most have an optimal year in a PhD or postdoc where their presentation material peaks, and overlaps best with the need to find the next career opportunity. Roll Snake Eyes Friday in that year, and you’re seriously bummed out.

Yeah, you say, but what can you do? All meetings suffer from multi-day burnout syndrome, and from a mass exodus during the late stages of the week. True enough. But the potential for burnout and the numbers who bail early increase the longer a meeting runs. It’s there on day 3 of a three day meeting, but not like it is on day 6 of a Sunday-Friday stint. As such, I’m certain ESA could make a few changes in the annual meeting structure to further their egalitarian credo – this time so that the impacts of a late day draw are lessened.

If you follow me on twitter, you may have seen that I started this rant earlier today. Here’s what I wrote, starting from the bottom up:

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 2.15.02 PM

Tweet 2 of 4 summarizes what I think ESA should do. Years ago, talks ran all day Monday; now, part of Monday is devoted to a plenary session for awards recipients; the remainder of Monday morning to “special sessions” that do not contain regular talks (the heart and soul of ESA).  Sunday night, some big draw speaker gets a chance to speak with no conflicting sessions. This year, the meeting is in Minneapolis, and Jon Foley (Director of UM’s Institute on the Environment) will give that presentation. It’ll be full, and well it should be: Jon gives a great talk, and he and his group do important work. But what if Jon’s talk, and it’s equivalent in other years, was the Grand Finale, not the meeting kick-off? What if we tried to amp up that Finale even more, perhaps by combining awards and invited talks that crossed the spectrum of ESA interests, and sought the biggest draws possible? And what if we shortened standard talk slots to 15 minutes (vs the current 20), as they once were? Do those things, and the last session of standard talks could be a full day earlier (Thursday morning), while the combination of a big draw Thursday afternoon plenary and the traditional Thursday evening party should keep a good number of people in town. It all being a day earlier, you’d also lessen the burnout effect.

Would it work? I don’t know. Unquestionably a fair number of people would go home on Thursday instead of Friday. But I’m willing to bet that the plenary talks would still have a pack of people in them, and that the relative impact on late meeting sessions would be lessened considerably. In other words, those final (now Thursday AM) talks might actually draw an audience. If so, inequities in talk timing would be reduced, and that would be good for everyone.

ESA’s current president Scott Collins (full disclosure: a friend and colleague I respect a great deal) answered my tweet barrage as follows:

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.35.05 PM

I’m glad Scott raised the issue, but am convinced the response he received from the board is wrong. Not everyone would leave, certainly not as they do now. Regardless, we know the current system is somewhat broken: as others on twitter commented earlier today, it’s embarrassing (among other problems noted above) to have sessions that are so cavernously empty. Above all, it’s unfair to the junior scientists ESA so rightly values.

As ecologists, we are ultimately empiricists. We know one approach does not work. Why not try a new one and see if it makes things better? At a minimum, why not survey the membership about different models? My suggestion is just one of many possible tweaks; crowdsource the discussion and perhaps we could hone in on the set of trade-offs ESA members prefer. Regardless of the details, my guess is that most would vote for jettisoning Friday morning sessions nobody wants to draw, because nobody attends.

Finally, there are many reasons to seek a shorter meeting beyond talk time inequities. For those with families or other commitments that make travel more difficult, every extra day matters a great deal. Same goes for those with limited travel budgets. Meetings should heed the same advice oft given to writers, speakers, and all forms of science communicators: keep it short and sweet, and leave them wanting more.

Please fire away with your own thoughts.


2 thoughts on “ESA’s Friday Problem

  1. Benjamin Houlton

    Perhaps most important Alan, it’s hard to sleep in the audience on ESA Fridays without standing out. Bobbing for apples anyone?

    Kidding aside – Can we vote on your or other proposals? My sense is Fridays would lose in a landslide for the very thoughtful reasons – perhaps others too – you highlighted. The question is – what would be the loss? Very little I’d guess, save time (i.e. shorter talks) – and if the society grows substantially, we could always open Frdays again.

    Further – have to wonder when video streaming will take over…another topic for another – though rapidly approaching – time…

  2. Pingback: Off to ESA in Minneapolis! | C.W. Schadt | ORNL-UTK Microbial Ecology Lab

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