JSM and other large meetings

Maybe paradoxically—or not because I heard the same complaint from many colleagues—, I am more and more reluctant to join large meetings like JSM and even the latest Valencia (Bayesian) meetings. While I can see the motivations for gathering a large group of professionals together during a week, the cons seem to outweigh (for me) the pros by a large factor!

First, while the main purpose of a meeting is to meet other researchers, the size of those huge conferences makes it real hard to gather with old friends and chat, unless appointments are made in advance, which kills part of the pleasure of such chance encounters. Crowds are sure generators of anonymity and thus meeting new people with a purpose is equally hard. Second, the talks are hard to give and to attend, because of the huge number of parallel sessions. On Monday morning, I counted more than forty JSM sessions starting at 8:30, not mentioning poster sessions and round tables… This means I have to make a choice between three or four sessions that are relevant for my research interests, among which there may be one or two special invited speakers. And the talks are usually too short (15mn) to be more than extended abstracts, which means that looking at the program and searching for the papers related to catchy titles is more productive than running from one side of the conference centre to the other. Giving a talk is equally a problem in that one has to shorten the informational content to be little more than advertising for one current or future paper. And facing the challenge of competing with an enormous number of other talks, thus having very small audiences (unless giving a Medallion or a Wald lecture!). Third, such meetings have a strong carbon impact: bringing at least 6000 persons from an average, say, 3000k away, plus housing the conference in a huge and presumably inefficient air-conditioned building should be weighted against the benefits of such a meeting. (As the Annual Planning Law And Policy Conference did for their 2006 meeting.) As I pointed out in the ISBA Bulletin last year, some level of video-conferencing could reduce the “carbon footprint” of those mega-conferences, if they are to be continued…

Obviously, there are also positive sides: if well-planned in advance, it is the perfect place to hold committee and board meetings, to meet researchers you want to interact with, to have dinner with old and new friends, to meet publishers and check freshly published books, to attend overviews of their research by major researchers, to hire new faculty/postdocs/PhD students and, why not!, to run the Gertrude Cox Scholarship 5k race… But attending 15mn talks and spotting new directions of exciting research—which are the initial reasons for attending a conference—somehow do not make it to the list! After one day of such a “train station” atmosphere, I end up, exhausted, retreating during most sessions to my hotel room to work on current projects…

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