Where science and tech meet creativity.

What feels like a million years ago, I attended my first American Astronomical Society meeting. It was my senior year at MSU and it was expected that I’d be presenting research to help me get into grad school. I can’t remember exactly what was in my poster, but I remember hanging it side by side with “famous female astronomer” Erika Böhm-Vitense’s poster. I was overwhelmed because I had just bought her books and now I was presenting my research right beside her. It was amazing.

In the (mumble mumble) years since that first poster presentation, I have attended a never ending march of these astronomy meetings. Sometimes I go as a journalist, and my media badge precludes me from presenting. Sometimes I go as a scientist, and there is a professional expectation that I must present, no matter what, as much as possible.

The thing is, if everyone is presenting (often multiple things), it becomes extremely hard to find the best content, and to find the time to consume that content between presenting and meetings. Sure, there are award talks and plenary sessions, but outside these rare longer presentations, everyone is trying to cram their science into 5 minutes or onto a 3’x4’ sheet of paper. There is little incentive to do more than a last minute effort when you know that if you’re lucky maybe 10–20 people will take the time to take in your work. These massive conferences often turn into a life changing event for the students (yea!) and there are social gatherings that may lead to new collaborations for more senior attendees, but mostly conferences lead to bitch sessions over beer.

The economics of this makes no sense in our funding strapped reality. At the cost of typically $1500-$2000 per person per meeting, and with typically a few thousand participants per year at just the AAS meetings, these events consume millions of dollars and I’m honestly not sure what the return is beyond getting to hangout and eat overpriced food with people I otherwise might only see in a video conferencing window. Since it’s easier to justify funding to go to these conferences then to get together face-to-face to do meaningful collaboration work, there isn’t any incentive to do things better.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

For the past few years, I’ve been attending computer science conferences when I can. I’m usually there to talk about the unique challenges of astronomy’s big data or how you test the accuracy of an algorithm that uses a human being as part of the data processing. These meetings are fundamentally different in two amazing ways: the expectation is that the majority of attendees are there to learn, and the speakers are invested in doing the best job they can because they are getting paid.

These two differences create an environment where the speakers want to shine, and the attendees are <gasp> actually paying attention.

It is frankly punishing to give an invited talk in astronomy. I generally have to pay my own way to get there (out of pocket, or out of grants that also pay my salary), including paying a several hundred dollar registration fee. Then, in some cases, my name and image is used to promote the event, and I’m pestered by organizers to advertise the event. Put another way, I get to pay for the privilege to do extra work and be used. The audience is generally sitting there, laptops open, checking their email and writing their own presentations instead of focusing on me.

In computer science, everything is different. Typically, a nice human will ask what airline I would like to fly, where I would like to stay, and things will magically be arranged. In one case, there was profit sharing and the amount of money the conference brought in was used to pay honoraria to the speakers! And the audience… they are there to learn, and while they may be tweeting, they are rarely working as they take in sessions.

In trying to figure out how these two fields ended up so different, I’ve been asking folks how their conference travel is paid for, and what their goals are in going to these meetings, At the heart of things appears to be a difference in what matters. People attending computer science conferences often have their travel paid for by their company or they pay out of pocket, and their motivations are to increase their skills and build the connections they need to get to the next step in their career. In astronomy, our travel is often paid for by our grants, sometimes by our institutions, and sometimes by us personally. We are there to attend professional meetings (unpaid labor), collaboration meetings (often but not always paid labor), and to always always present (sometimes we even have to pay our own poster printing fees!) We aren’t there to learn. It’s not unusual to hear a senior person say they didn’t get to attend a single session at a conference, and it’s not unusual to see someone arrive 10min before they present and leave a session room as soon as their own presentation is done (I’ve been guilty of both these things).

The thing that I find ironic is that astronomy, an academic field, doesn’t emphasize learning at the meetings were everyone is trying to disseminate all their results.

Imagine what these conferences would look like if our institutions valued people going to learn and to bring back new ideas even just as much as they value people presenting? Imagine if session and poster spots were competitively selected (with a lower bar for students). This might encourage higher-quality content to be produced and audiences to pay close attention.

Unfortunately, I think the — industrial — academic complex of astronomy precludes this kind of change. Institutes need to report that their people are presenting to attract the best students and funders, researchers need to report that they are presenting to get promoted and maintain funding, and even students need to say they are presenting to get into grad school. If we suddenly tried to change the paradigm, putting the emphasis on learning instead of presenting, the number of things being reported would plummet, failure would likely be perceived instead of change, and people would get punished for being part of doing things a better way.

So, we will maintain a false conference economy in astronomy.

And we will continue to bitch over beer, as some of us dream of doing things a better way.