Some thoughts on future IBS meetings

This message is about the current International Biogeography Society (IBS) meeting design that has a large biennial meeting coupled with specialty meetings during off-years.  COVID-19 has required some modifications to the recent meeting timetables, but we eventually anticipate a return to this pattern of meetings.   Though I have been to only three biennial IBS meetings (Miami, Bayreuth, and Tucson) and the Humboldt Symposium in Quito, it is enough to see the trend towards larger meetings and many parallel sessions.  This is supposed to be good for any professional society. Can any society complain about more participation in their annual or biennial meetings?

Unfortunately, once conferences exceed a certain size the venue choices become fewer.  If rooms are needed for plenary sessions that every participant should attend, then there will be fewer conference facilities suitable for such large groups.  Such conferences will then take place in major convention centers – usually in urban downtowns that are walking distance to relatively expensive hotels. 

Many societies, upon reaching a certain size, decide to hold specialized conferences with fewer participants.  This way the meetings can be held in more desirable locations with smaller facilities.  They may still hold major annual events – but participants recognize that at such events they can see or hear only a small part of the entire meeting.  Whether or not the IBS is ready to split its biennial conference into smaller, more frequent meetings is a question that should be asked of the members.  What might an alternative meeting arrangement look like?

University facilities are often (but perhaps not universally) recognized as being suitable venues for smaller scientific conferences.  These are usually available during school breaks or summer sessions.  Hotels may, or may not, be more conveniently located to college campuses, but transportation can be arranged to central university locations much like that done in Miami, Bayreuth, or Quito.  Ideally the commute should be short in time and distance.

An “ideal” IBS meeting might be one where there are very few parallel sessions – perhaps none.  Now, biennial conference participants unavoidably miss many talks of interest to them because a half dozen sessions are running in parallel.  Poster sessions in an ideal conference should be long enough, or frequent enough, so that one-on-one discussions should be possible with nearly all poster presenters – if so desired.  Currently, many poster presenters cannot take time to talk with other poster presenters.  Also, in an “ideal” conference there should be time for both organized and informal IBS groups to meet, socialize, and discuss common issues.  Every conference participant should be part of at least one such group.

What are the penalties of having, say, three specialized and smaller IBS conferences instead of one larger biennial meeting?  For one, participants won’t have the guarantee of meeting the same people every two years.  It is possible that some of your colleagues will decide to attend one of the other small meetings.  Then there are the greater travel costs to consider, especially air fares.  But the lower daily costs due to smaller venues (that should translate into somewhat lower registration costs) and less expensive hotels near the conference venue should partially defray the greater airfare costs of attending three meetings instead of one.  The main disadvantage of holding three meetings versus one is that more time would be required to attend the three.  Whether this is a disadvantage or advantage depends on the individual and their desire for outreach and interaction with the greater IBS community.

A subject that has been brought to the forefront by COVID is that of virtual meetings.  Few people prefer such meetings if they have the option of meeting in-person, but there are advantages to virtual meetings.  These can be more specialized and more frequent.

A Zoom meeting with global participation now invariably leads to some participants being up at all hours of the night.  To encourage participation in virtual meetings it might be a productive strategy to hold them in similar time zones. Europe and Africa, East Asia to Australia, and North and South America are natural time zone delineations that would reduce major disruptions in the circadian rhythm of the participants.  The meetings could be further biased towards the time zone where the most participants were expected.   Shorter meetings each day – over more days – might be better for participants and for the optimal timing of the talks. 

Although virtual meetings might have the disadvantage of having a more regional focus (e.g. neotropical topics, African/European issues, or Oriental-Australasian themes) at the expense of global issues, this could also be an advantage.  Many talks at IBS meetings have a regional, not global focus.  It is true that the IBS currently supports specialized theme conferences in off-years but such meetings, despite their smaller attendance, usually have parallel sessions.  Perhaps regional meetings could have a certain portion of the sessions focusing on globally applicable topics while the remaining sessions focus on regional topics.  Just how to define such categories might be challenging.

Finally, virtual meeting could either be stand-alone, or part of more frequent regional meetings.  Some though would have to be given to which strategy is most effective.  Of course, estimating “effectiveness” may not be easy.

A second factor to consider for IBS meetings is that of field trips.  I think this has been under-emphasized to date in the biennial meetings.  In part this is because January in northern latitudes lacks both daylight and warm weather. The fact that the IBS membership is dominated by European and North American countries has led to the January meetings alternating between these regions, but suitable weather is not guaranteed in either of these regions in early January.

Although field trips have, with some justification, been considered only a minor part of most scientific conferences, there are benefits to these. For one, spending a day with other like-minded biogeographers allows one to have lengthy discussions on whatever topic is mutually interesting.  There often isn’t time for such discussions during the actual conference’s coffee breaks or lunches. 

The IBS might consider extending the field trip period (after the conference) to perhaps a week.  Currently, with only one or two days available for field trips (usually a day before and a day after the conference) most people must choose between a variety of interesting trips.  See an example of field excursions proposed as part of an ecological congress for 2022.  There are twenty-four planned – all on the same day!  This may be fine for many senior biogeographers with continuous commitments and the need to quickly return to their institutions, but there are many others, either more junior faculty or graduate students, who might relish the possibility of a more comprehensive field experience.  The question of just what a valuable “field experience” might be for biogeographers is a valid one – at least one that can be accomplished in a few days’ time.

Finally, thought needs to be given to the possibility of holding a short course – up to a week duration, either before or after an IBS conference, aimed at regional biogeography educators and local university students. Perhaps bare-bones funding for some travel and accommodations could be offered to members of the host country or a few neighboring countries that are within low-cost transportation to the course venue.  This should be of relatively inexpensive to the IBS because 1) instructors would already be traveling to the conference, 2) some course participants would have had their travel already covered by their own institutions and 3) student participants from the host and nearby countries can more easily minimize living and transportation costs. Holding a course locally also reduces problems with obtaining visas for many of the students – compared with a course offered in North America, Europe, or some other parts of the World.

Point 3) in the previous paragraph is important.  I organized a 3-week tropical meteorology course in Panama to meteorologists and students from Latin American countries.  We had funding to support two participants from each country – by our estimates of the likely expenses.  However, the Colombians expressed interest in having more participants attend.  They discussed the situation among themselves – and when the course started there were twelve Colombians in the class.  They had managed to obtain additional funding, split the funds we provided, and shared accommodations so that many more participants could attend than we thought possible.  I suspect this would be the same for a biogeography course offered in many parts of the world.  Such course opportunities, taught by foreigners with specialized backgrounds, are all too rare for students in many countries. 

If the IBS wants to have the greatest immediate impact in advancing the global biogeography community, it might be best to send instructors “to the field” to provide intensive short courses.  Many more students and teachers can be reached this way than by bringing relatively few students to European or US institutions for formal graduate work.  Such short courses can also serve to identify suitable candidates for later graduate education.  Finding funding for such short courses can be a challenge, but it is feasible if the venue is carefully chosen and most participants are from nearby countries.

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