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From the Executive Office

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 12:47

The Long Beach meeting is underway as I write this column (during a break between sessions). Roughly 2500 people attended the meeting and judging by the hoarse voices and happy grins mid-week, most valued the opportunity to speak with and hang-out with their colleagues. Organizing a meeting of this size and logistical complexity is not easy and takes real professionals working both on site and for years (literally) ahead of time to pull it off. Thankfully we have an amazingly competent AAS staff that work together to pull off the amazingly complex logistic exercise of a large scientific conference. Additionally, we rely on volunteers to help with many duties on site as well as our volunteer elected leaders (the Vice-Presidents) to build the scientific program.

As our meetings have grown, we have not significantly changed the structure or content of the meeting. Sure, we have added workshops, expanded our press services and made other changes, but the Society has not made any fundamental change to the core way the meeting is constructed from member contributions. This has led, some say unfortunately, to a huge number of parallel sessions of five-minute talks to provide a venue for all requested oral presentations and also large poster sessions that must change each day. The Council began some discussions at its meeting here in Long Beach about what the core value proposition of our meetings is and how we might enhance it. Mainly our meetings are about communication, both scientific and interpersonal. Having had to personally attempt to vacate the exhibit hall at the end of the day, I can vouch for how much our attendees enjoy talking with each other. It doesn't help turning the lights off either…we're astronomers and perfectly happy talking on in a darkened hall!

We will be trying some experiments at upcoming meetings, both Indianapolis in June and Washington next January. We are hopeful that some of these Council-selected trial runs will enhance the meeting and when something works, we'll try and gracefully integrate it into our meeting program. Does this mean the sudden demise of five-minute talks? Well, probably not right away…it will take time to make any major change, but it does mean that the Council is performing one of its most important duties, thinking strategically and long-term about how the Society can help enhance our discipline and achieve our mission to enhance and share humanity's scientific understanding of the universe. You should thank all of them for serving you and your colleagues in this way and give them your ideas and input, which will be easier than ever on our new website. (p.s. we are "soft-launching" our site over the coming months, so stay tuned and stay patient as we bring this new and powerful system online at long last.)

Running a large meeting is more than logistically complex, it's expensive. I've described in many ways just how expensive it is, but I always remember that the reason it is expensive is not really any one piece (though food and beverage always makes up a major fraction of our meeting costs), but the sum of all the costs. We begin planning for each meeting by remembering our core goal, which is represented in the mission of the Society I quoted above. This goal means we have to have good audiovisual services. We have to have a smoothly functioning speaker presentation system (we have one of the best). We have to provide organized schedules, rooms with enough seating and signage to ease the flow of meeting attendees around the conference. We have to provide security to ensure the safety of our attendees and our exhibitors. We have to provide medical services in case of emergency. We have come to provide wireless Internet service throughout the meeting and to our exhibitors, averaging around 35 Mbps in bandwidth (p.s. that's expensive to provide). The list goes on and on. Additionally, our meetings have to cover a significant portion of staff salaries and benefits, as dues alone cannot cover all of those costs and we do not use proceeds from our journals to pay for ongoing society activities.

Costs add up and they add up fast. The challenge is to achieve the core goals for our meetings while doing so at a price that our attendees can afford. It's a tremendous challenge, but one that I think we are achieving. Our meeting registration is similar to that of similar scientific societies (APS, AGU, OSA) and very dissimilar from meetings in the for-profit sector, which can run into the thousands of dollars.

We will continue to inform our members and meeting attendees about what they're paying for in their meeting registration, but a significant chunk of what you get when you attend a meeting is intangible. It's a safe, organized environment to have conversation and interaction with your colleagues. It's thousands of hours of staff effort to organize and execute the conference. It's infrastructure that underlies the conference and makes things work right, like the speaker presentation system. We don't provide some of the tangible things that smaller conferences provide, like registration gifts or tote bags, but I think we do a much better and more comprehensive job on the intangibles…and it's the intangibles that help us achieve our mission to enhance and share humanity's scientific understanding of the universe…see you at an AAS conference soon!

As always, send me your ideas, thoughts, quips and tweaks…

Kevin B. Marvel
Executive Officer
American Astronomical Society
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