Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

ESA 2010 (Overall Impressions)

Posted 07 Aug 2010 / 0

This year’s Ecological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting was a success for me, and its siting in Pittsburgh was an added bonus. Based on the scope and focus of the meeting, ESA seems to be an organization poised to move beyond its traditional role as the central home of ecological research. The extension into more applied, political, and public arenas is appropriate, but as our society moves in this direction the meeting reflects the emergence of some growing pains.

Pittsburgh-brand bike rack

Although we all registered for the same meeting, each ESA attendee was present for a different meeting. With such a broad diversity of concurrent offerings, different people will inevitably carve out different niches within the meeting. With that said, I detected a really strong move towards applied, political, and public outreach projects at this year’s meeting. Perhaps this is because of my own bias towards these areas, but the overwhelming number of “not basic science” sessions argues against this explanation. This overwhelming number of applied sessions led to a lot of concurrent sessions with related foci, and I found that there were a number of topics that I usually gravitate towards (such as Environmental Justice) that I had to trade off for other areas of interest. Whereas only a few years ago I attended all the sessions that reached beyond basic science, doing so at this year’s meeting would have been impossible.

Perhaps this is not surprising. One of our past ESA presidents, Jane Lubchenco, now heads up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and has gained prominence for her role as government spokesperson throughout the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. With global warming a central focus of this year’s meeting, ecologists find that their work can be applied to major media stories as never before. This excites me. But based on the “not basic science” sessions that I attended, I have my concerns. While it is great that ecologists are finally joining the rest of the world in the dirty work of fighting environmental injustice and preserving ecosystems that interact with economies, it is clear that we have a lot of catching up to do. While I am excited by the efforts of ecologists to engage in policy debates, to educate the public, and to apply their science to pressing problems, I am underwhelmed by the progress of these efforts. I don’t think this is surprising: just becoming an accomplished scientist is a lifetime pursuit, and we don’t really come of age as ecologists in an atmosphere that teaches us how to get beyond being expert practitioners of science. What seems to be the model right now is that a few “overachieving” scientists, usually either early career graduate students or late career professors, branch out into the worlds of politics and publicity. I find these efforts admirable, but I think that they are not a sustainable model. What is more rare and probably more realistic are collaborations with non-scientists who are expert in the areas that are beyond ecological training: organizing, politics, economics, publicity, and governance. Future meetings need to focus on building these collaborations if we are to harness the full potential of our science in service of environmental advocacy.

Quiet Storm, one of Pittsburgh's best vegan-friendly restaurants. Just make sure you show up by 6 pm!

Turning to more microscopic issues, I thought that the overall organization of the meeting was strong this year. ESA seems to have a nice, functioning meeting template in place, and given the sheer number of people who attend and events that go on, I am impressed with how smoothly the meeting ran. Having attended one of the field trips for the first time, I now understand how valuable these are as an investment on the part of the society.

Welcoming retro decor at Quiet Storm

One of the things I love about academic conferences is that they are generally sited in my favorite kinds of cities: inexpensive, smaller, and up-and-coming metropolises. Here we find economics and convenience pushing in the same direction: I know that the society could not afford a meeting in a more expensive city, and being a resident of such a city I am glad to get the chance to visit more livable urban areas. The choice of Pittsburgh for this year’s meeting was excellent in spite of its somewhat funny convention center. As a rust belt city that represents the decline of heavy industry and the passing of the heyday of coal, Pittsburgh’s past failures now appear to be an opportunity. Abandoned only decades ago, places like Pittsburgh now present a sustainable promise with the potential to draw people out of the carbon-intensive suburbs and back to the more energy-efficient urban centers.

Amazing vegan food at Quiet Storm

And what’s amazing about cities like Pittsburgh is that in spite of being economically underdeveloped, they generally have all the crucial sustainable amenities in place. Taking advantage of cheap real estate and an overall lower cost of living, creative people have already filled the city with a rich culture that seems just as fulfilling and much more accessible than the crammed-in hyperculture of a city like New York. Vegan food is abundant (make sure you go to Quiet Storm and Spak Bros. if you visit), there is a growing movement towards sustainable transportation supported by groups like Bike Pittsburgh, and there’s a burgeoning urban agriculture movement afoot throughout the region. Because Pittsburgh is a cheap place to live, it has attracted people who are at least thinking about how to live an economically sustainable life; many of these people are also concerned with environmental sustainability. As ESA enters a new era of “planetary stewardship”, it should continue to hold its meetings in emerging sustainable cities.

Pittsburgh has a really amazing bike and walking trail system alongside its rivers

No meeting is going to be perfect, and there were a few things that I found tough at this year’s meeting. I love the location of the Lawrence Conference Center in a vibrant downtown part of Pittsburgh, and I love its placement right on the rivers overlooking four bridges and two stadiums. I even like the overall architecture of the Lawrence, but it has to be one of the most awkwardly-designed conference centers that I have ever visited. Perhaps not all conferences maintain the manic pace and rapid transit of a scientific meeting, but it seems to me that when you go to design a conference center priority should be placed on allowing meeting attendees to move efficiently from room to room. A good example of such a center is Portland’s Oregon Convention Center, which maintains a series of rooms adequate to contain an entire scientific program and (most importantly) within a quick walk from each other. In contrast, the Lawrence seems designed to maximize the distance between rooms, a feat accomplished by making the exhibit halls a central feature and therefore obstacle to transit between meeting rooms. This may seem like a trivial gripe, but as someone who enjoys freewheeling my way between diverse talks, I found myself missing a lot of good content because there was really no way to get from talk to talk, even with the five-minute passing time allowed by ESA’s really smart talk format. And the ten-minute “coffee breaks” between sessions? Well, between the poor placement of the coffee cart and the spread-out nature of the Lawrence, you had better be ready to run for your caffeine fix.

A related complaint about the Lawrence was its lack of wireless access. I do not know whose fault this was (ESA or the Lawrence), but throughout the meeting there was no wireless access for attendees. Perhaps I sound spoiled saying this, but what decade are we in? Participants in the meeting were relegated to lining up at the “internet cafe” set up near registration, which is a far cry from efficient, modern web access. The Evolution meeting had wireless throughout the meeting, and I found myself doing a lot more exploring of ideas, checking out the work of colleagues, and blogging on my experience between sessions at that meeting. If a conference center cannot provide wireless for meeting attendees, I think it is out for future meetings.

Although well-organized, I also felt that the meeting schedule was pretty hectic. There are so many sessions and so many talks that it is pretty difficult to fit everything in. As a person whose humble work ends up in the low-glamor “Contributed Oral Sessions” I probably should be careful what I wish for, but I wonder if ESA is not allowing a few too many talks at the meeting. Ten minute breaks barely allow for passing between sessions much less enlightened conversation, and it always seems that everyone is rushing around to get to the talks they want to see. Lots of concurrent sessions end up splitting their potential audience, resulting in thinly-attended talks in cavernous halls. By the time that Friday rolls around most people are either gone or exhausted, so if you have the bad luck of drawing a Friday morning slot, your opportunity to communicate with a broad audience is severely limited. What I think ESA needs to do is shift more of its talks to poster sessions. This is not to say that posters are at all inferior to talks; it is just that posters can be efficiently hosted in concurrent sessions. In a “more posters, less talks” format, maybe the oral sessions would be better-attended and less likely to conflict with each other. With enough culling of the talks, there might be room to remove the dreaded Friday morning slot as well.

And of course I could not wrap up the meeting without acknowledging what a nice opportunity it is to meet up with old friends and make new ones. I had the pleasure of bumping into many old colleagues and professors from the Stony Brook Department of Ecology and Evolution, and it was great to see how their work and lives had progressed in the last few years. I also got to say hello to many people who I met for the first time at the 2009 ESA meeting in Albuquerque, NM, many but not all of whom remembered who I was. I even ran into an old friend from high school who had spent the twenty years since we last saw each other becoming a successful soil ecologist. He seemed to be very surprised to see me, but at this point I no longer am surprised by the common paths that often wind through the field of ecology.

Bike Polo at Arsenal Park in Pittsburgh

I was able to attend this meeting thanks in part to funding from the Pratt Institute Faculty Development Fund.

Conferences, Ecological Society of America, Ecology

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