40 years of ESA meetings: What has changed? Insights from Laura Huenneke

I write this as the week-long 2017 meeting of the Ecological Society of America wraps up in Portland, Oregon. I’m a veteran of many ESA meetings; my first was in 1977, giving me a long-term perspective indeed on what has changed, and what has been stable, in the structure and human dimensions of the annual meeting.

ESA_logo2017Most obviously, the participants have become more diverse in gender, ethnicity, and employment. International participation is much higher than in earlier years. Importantly, students and early career individuals continue to be numerous both as attendees and presenters. While the majority of attendees are academics, discussions about non-academic careers and networking sessions make up an impressive fraction of the special events and workshops.

A premium is placed on providing as many opportunities to present as possible. Thus the essence of the meeting experience is the frustration of leafing through program pages filled with lists of many appealing concurrent sessions, especially of contributed oral papers. For example, the first afternoon had 24 concurrent contributed oral sessions, together with symposia, poster sessions, and other activities.

The diversification of formats is, in fact, one of the most notable changes over time. Invited symposia still offer longer talks organized around a compelling theme, to accompany contributed talks and posters. But now attendees and presenters can also choose among the very popular organized oral sessions, organized poster sessions, and several kinds of workshops and trainings.

esa vi2017 cover

The BES and ESA journals teamed up this year to produce a special virtual issue for ESA 2017: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

Ignite sessions, in particular, have created novel meeting interactions. These feature short (5 minute) presentations on a central theme, with discussion only after all talks are completed. Each presentation has only 10 slides with automatic timing. There’s intense pressure to deliver the talk with discipline and precision, and to maximize slide clarity and impact; simply talking faster to squeeze a 15-minute talk into 5 would be a disaster. At the same time, the brevity (and maybe the pressure?) seems to elicit humor and empathy between audience and speakers. The discussions after these sets of Ignite talks have been remarkable and truly stimulating.

Another welcome observation is the truly outstanding graphics in some of the presentations and posters. While sadly some colleagues still rely on slides of bulleted text, others exhibit wonderful design and high-impact elements such as inclusion of video. One very effective poster was presented in the format of a graphic novel! The standards of visual communication today are very high.

Finally – the sessions reflect the explosion of interest in the science-policy interface, in engaging with non-scientific and with interdisciplinary audiences, and in science communication. Social media are much in evidence, especially the use of Twitter to promote and to share. The ESA has created a meeting code of conduct, not just about use of social media but also the many components of a respectful, safe, inclusive, and collaborative conference environment. Our collective understanding of how to highlight the excitement while protecting pre-publication results continues to evolve.

Overall, it’s reassuring to see that the traditional value of the meeting – face to face interactions, contributed talks and posters stimulating discussion and new ideas, networking with colleagues old and new — remain as strong as ever. In this 102nd ESA meeting, though, the new forms of presentation and the increasingly diverse participants are signs of vigorous new growth for the discipline.

Laura Huenneke, Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

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