Meeting Format Analysis

New Approaches to AMS Meetings

There is some feeling that meetings conducted by the AMS no longer serve the community or the science the way they did some years ago. There has been much talk of how meetings can change to better meet the needs of the community. Before discussing specific ideas for new meeting formats or structures, it is worth looking at what meetings accomplished in the past and what sort of goals should be expected now.

Historical perspective

Thirty years ago, our community and our science were very different. Subdisciplines within meteorology were able to carry out productive research in near isolation from other subdisciplines. For example, researchers in NWP had little reason to interact with radar meteorologists or researchers in satellite meteorology. The total number of researchers in each subdiscipline, as represented by the STAC structure, was small compared to today. It was easier for a four or five day scientific conference accomplished many goals. Among the goals met by these earlier meetings, either in part or in whole, were:

  1. The majority of researchers in a particular subdiscipline were able to participate in the meeting.
  2. All participants had adequate opportunity for formal presentation time in which to tell the rest of the group about their current research efforts.
  3. Significant controversial issues could be debated in an open forum.
  4. Informal interaction, often leading to collaboration, was easily accomplished during breaks or evenings.
  5. Provocative ideas could be presented in sufficient depth to allow substantive discussion and debate.
  6. A sense of community within the subdiscipline could be strengthened through social interactions (such as the mandatory "songfest" at cloud physics meetings or the storm chaser presentations at severe storms meetings).
  7. Young researchers had an opportunity to interact with more established ones and were drawn into that interaction actively by the established researchers (often by joining groups for dinner in the evenings).
  8. Graduate students could present work in progress as part of formal sessions to receive feedback that could strengthen their thesis.
  9. Scientists, both young and old, could "network" to improve job opportunities.

No one had to set out to have these goals be outcomes of the meeting, they happened naturally as a result of the relative small size of the meeting and the somewhat isolated nature of the community in the subdiscipline served by the meeting.

Current perspective

Things are different now. Our science has matured, as well as grown significantly. There are now many researchers working in each of the "traditional" subdisciplines and those subdisciplines can no longer make significant advances in near isolation with respect to others. Research in NWP, for example, now requires interaction with researchers in hydrology, cloud physics, satellite meteorology, etc. General subdiscipline meetings, as normally conducted through the STAC structure, are much larger than they were three decades ago and much more interdisciplinary. Thus, it is completely unrealistic to expect any single meeting to accomplish more than a few of the goals outlined above regardless of its format or structure.

Therefore, rather than discuss changes that will "fix" meetings in general, the approach must be quite different. The community needs to look at what specific goals a particular meeting hopes to achieve and then look at meeting formats and structures that will allow this — clear in the knowledge that they may only be able to achieve a couple to perhaps a half dozen goals of the above list.

Our mature science now provides some additional goals that can be added to the list, as well, including those related to societal impacts. Some additional goals that might be sought include:

  1. Provide opportunity for overlapping subdisciplines to interact productively (for example, researchers working on data assimilation in the atmosphere might interact with those studying this for the oceans).
  2. Provide a means for policy issues related to the atmospheric sciences to be openly debated to help establish scientific consensus that can serve policy makers.
  3. Provide fertile venue for incipient subdisciplines (such as operational coastal ocean forecasting) to draw on the broader community so that growth in the subdiscipline can be swift.
  4. Provide mechanism for the researchers and users to interact productively (this includes "users" of products who are themselves outside of the scientific community, such as those in weather sensitive industries).
  5. Provide a means for those who cannot physically attend the meeting to benefit from it in ways that go beyond getting the material from the preprint volume.

The 14 goals listed here provide a framework for evaluating the current meeting format as well as a number of suggestions for new meeting formats. Each of the formats discussed below can be (and should be) evaluated with respect to each of the potential goals. In some cases, a format will lend itself quit naturally to a few of the goals while being unable to meet several others. In other cases, the format will allow for some of the goals to be met only if the meeting planners consciously decide to pursue those goals (especially with respect to goals 10—13).

Examples of meeting formats currently used

a. "Traditional" AMS meeting as implemented now

This usually takes the form of a number of oral sessions (typically including a small number of invited talks but dominated by contributed papers), often with parallel sessions, plus several poster sessions. Oral talks usually allow 15 minutes for the talk and discussion. The meeting often has on the order of 200 presenters with some meetings approaching 400.

b. "Traditional" weighted heavily toward poster sessions

Here, in order to provide for fewer or no parallel sessions, many presenters are part of poster sessions. In some cases, poster presenters are provide 2 minutes each for a brief description of their poster.

c. Oral sessions for invited talks only, all others poster

Here significant time is provided for invited speakers by having all contributed papers delivered as part of poster sessions (perhaps with the 2 minute descriptions for each).

d. Single topic meetings

A mix of invited and contributed papers, but on a narrowly defined topic so that the meeting is much smaller in scope than the traditional meeting. (These are often referred to as "Chapman-type" meetings.)

e. Single topic symposium

All invited speakers, usually focussing on a fairly narrowly defined topic. (An example is the president's symposium at an annual meeting.)


Examples of new approaches that have been suggested

a. Regional meetings

Focused on a topic specific to a region, and held in that region, to draw mostly from the community in that region and hence have a smaller meeting that may provide a better opportunity for the private sector and students to attend.

b. Teleconference

Broadcast sessions held at main meeting location via satellite or Internet to "virtual attendees" that might be at their office or at one of several remote regional "mini-meetings" in which groups come together to view the broadcast and engage in local discussion.

c. Fully interactive teleconference

Full two-way interactive broadcast sessions between the main meeting and remote locations.

d. Virtual meeting

Electronic conference in which papers are posted online in a forum setting and discussion occurs asynchronously among registrants of the online conference. No direct physical meeting occurs.

e. Hybrid virtual meeting

All papers are posted online in forum setting prior to physical meeting with discussion occurring online among registrants. Then, a physical meeting takes place that is dominated by group discussion and debate based on issues that arise during the online forum discussion.

f. Synchronous virtual meeting

Presenters deliver dynamic presentations online (that might include live video of the presenter) at specific times to registrants via the Internet, with each presentation followed by a live chat-room style interactive session for questions and answers. Session is archived as part of a forum allowing follow-up asynchronous discussion after the presentation. No physical meeting occurs.


Additional issues that impact the effectiveness of AMS meetings

Current practice in our community, and de facto policy among the funding agencies, is that most scientists can only attend a conference if they are a presenter. This is not true in other disciplines, where conference attendance is viewed as a means of professional growth and continuing education and attendance for nonpresenters is widely supported. The AMS may want to pursue trying to foster a change in the way scientific meetings in our field are viewed within the funding agencies so that researchers will feel able to attend and contribute to the discussion and debate even if they are not a formal presenter.

The current STAC structure is not as reflective of the subdisciplines in our science as it could be, but the meetings still follow the STAC structure with few exceptions (one notable exception is the Integrated Observations Symposium now a regular part of the annual meeting). It is worth noting that prior to twenty years ago, STAC reorganized on a regular basis to reflect changes in the field, but the current structure has gained some level of inertia that has made it hard to change. This is at least partly a result of the longer lead time required to plan meetings now that they are larger and more complex. A change in the STAC structure at a given instant could "strand" in midstream any program committee under a STAC committee that was changed in the restructuring.

The venue and costs for meetings, both annual and specialty, requires continuing scrutiny for all types of meeting structures that are considered. It is important that the AMS meetings provide an opportunity for participation from all sectors served by the Society, including students and those whose work schedule is more rigid than typical members of the research community.

Short courses have become common at both annual and specialty meetings, but are currently structured as completely separate from the meeting — normally happening the day before the regular meeting starts and having an independent registration process. Some Societies have integrated short course and other continuing education opportunities into the overall meeting structure so that they occur coincident with the meeting and are woven into the meeting program. It is not clear that this is necessarily better than the current structure, but it should be examined to see if there are situations in which it would accommodate interactions that might not otherwise take place.

The annual meeting presents its own issues related to serving the community that are quite independent of specialty meetings held over the course of the year. For example, the annual meeting provides opportunities for interdisciplinary interaction among scientists that are unlikely to occur in other venues. It probably makes sense to specifically guide conference planning for the annual meeting to exploit this opportunity — not through the occasional joint session as is suggested now, but rather by planning "joint symposiums" that focus quite specifically on interdisciplinary topics and do not "compete" with the regular conference that might be planned by the STAC committee. This could significantly alter the approach currently taken of trying to get all STAC committees to have a conference at the annual meeting about once out of every three conferences. It could also lead to annual meetings that were not so overwhelming in scope and complexity since individual sessions would, by their planned nature, draw on several communities rather than having independent parallel sessions for each of those communities.

The annual meeting also provides an excellent forum of significant debates on public policy issues in the atmospheric and related sciences. As the Society moves toward more involvement in policy issues, such debates could become a cornerstone of the annual meeting, replacing the concept of a keynote address.

Important Society needs are met during the annual meeting that must be accounted for, as well. This is often the only opportunity for the various boards and committees of the Society to meet in person and a very significant fraction of the Society's business is accomplished in the week of the annual meeting.

The role played by the exhibits programs at the annual and some specialty meetings should not be ignored here. Not only do these exhibits programs generate revenue for the Society that helps keep registration fees lower, but it also provides a means for a broad spectrum of the community to interact with an array of vendors from the private sector. There is also the potential benefit to the private sector companies that through their exhibit participation some number of employees can attend the meeting and take advantage of scientific sessions there. There has been some effort in the past few years for the annual meeting, at least, to include a job fair and exhibitor companies can play a major role in having this be successful, as well.

© 1999 American Meteorological Society