Thursday, June 18, 2009

Evolution 2009 Postmortem Open Thread

You can expect a few posts in the coming days that summarize the major findings we've taken away from the Evolution 2009 meetings in Moscow, Idaho. In the meantime, I'm posting a few photos that might give people who weren't there a flavor for the venue, and to everyone a chance to drop random thoughts they might have in the meeting's immediate aftermath. Moscow was a lovely little town and campus was beautiful. Thanks to all those who made the meeting possible, and the conference's local organizers in particular! Special thanks also to One World Cafe and it's staff, without whom myself and other members of the Dechronization crew may not have lasted more than a day. Photo legend (top to bottom): (1) Craig Moritz's SSE presidential address in the Kibbie Dome, an airplane hanger-like venue that is also the venue for the University of Idaho's home football games, (2) Luke Harmon on stage for his ASN Young Investigator Award lecture on "Causes and Effects o f Adaptive Radiation" (note: not picking, clearly scratching), (3) caffeine addicts trying in vain to get a fix during the meeting's first few days, (4) the court-room venue that was located in the U of I's law school and was complete with a judges stand and jury box.


Luke J. Harmon said...

Scratching, yes, clearly. Not a picker.

Dan Warren said...

It was a great conference, and I had a lot of fun. While I appreciate the great effort the organizers put into the conference, there are a few things that could have gone better. I mention these only in the hopes that organizers of future conferences will benefit:

-Venues were too far apart.

-The grouping of talks into sessions seemed pretty haphazard and often just wrong.

-The two main things that make an Evolution conference flow smoothly are coffee and beer. The coffee situation got fixed after the first day, but I would hope that future organizers would: a) try to wangle more drink tickets for the attendees and b) not charge people cash in addition to their drink ticket for decent beer. On that note, I can't WAIT to see how happy everyone's going to be in 2011 when they find that the only beer available at OU is 3.2 swill.

As I said, though, I really appreciate the efforts of everyone involved, and overall it was a great experience. I should also say that those LLC dorms are easily the nicest college dorms I've ever stayed in. Those are some lucky undergrads!

John Harshman said...

Re: Beer.

You should have been at the Chico meeting. Sierra Nevada on tap at all the poster sessions, and a trip to the brewery any time.

Oh, and Fort Collins was nice too, with the New Belgium brewery in town.

So here's a suggestion. Plan meetings around local breweries. Perhaps a meeting in San Jose some time? Gordon Biersch.

Liam Revell said...


My impression is that the only way you can guarantee venues in close proximity to one another is by holding the meeting in a hotel/conference center (which increases the costs of participation).

My only complaint was the complete absence of Coke and Coca-Cola products from campus.

Otherwise, cool venue, and great meeting!

Dan Warren said...

I was at both Chico and Fort Collins, which may have set my expectations unrealistically high.

John Harshman said...

At the meeting in St. Louis, only Anheuser Busch products were available. Not only that, when we went away from the hotel looking for real beer, we couldn't find anything else in any of the bars we examined.

Glor said...

I agree with Liam that the venues too far apart thing is a catch-22. In the end, it seems like a reasonable price to pay for having meetings on a nice college campus instead of an ugly conference center. Coffee the first few days was definitely a bummer, I'm glad they rectified that situation. I thought the beer situation was pretty much par for the course. Dan's right about Oklahoma, the beer is going to suck. I went to a herp. conference there a few years ago at this hideous postal service conference facility and some state or federal regulation required that any beer being served contain <3.2% alcohol. Swill is too kind a word.

Matt Brandley said...

To Rich: as an OU alum, I can only pray to the homosexual-loving, beer-drinking, evolutionary biologist diety that 90% of Oklahoma doesn't pray to and hope that the meeting is on the OU campus and not the postal center. At the very least, there are *some* bars within walking distance to campus.

To follow up on Dan W., the beer situation at the meeting was a severe irritation - especially that there wasn't at least a discount for beer/wine after paying for the banquet (The NZ banquet had delicious local wine included in the tab). But, overall the conference was great and I would rather drink the lamest of beers and walk miles between talks than take the herp meeting philosophy and having meetings at conference centers / malls / hotels.

Anonymous said...

I was taking notes at the meeting and I am also of the mind that two things that can make all the difference at meetings are coffee and beer. While we in Norman do not have local brews of the quality of a Sierra Nevada or New Belgium, we do have a local brewery that is decent and we hope to have good quantities available at all venues. Moreover, I think good coffee and other beverages should be available at all times before say, 5:00 pm. The scientific sessions will be held at a new Embassy Suites conference center with other events held on campus. I stayed at the Wallace Center dorms and it was a sh*t hole. I think the OU dorms are much better, but perhaps not better than the LLC. We will have shuttle buses available to transport people to the university district with restaurants and bars after hours.

I have not yet read all the comments here but will certainly take all comments and suggestions seriously.

Rich Broughton
Oklahoma Local Committee

Matt Brandley said...

Thanks for the update, Rich B.

Just out of curiosity, why not have everything (housing and sessions) on campus? There are lots of lecture halls within walking distance. I ask because one thing I've always liked about the Evolution meetings is that they are not in hotels or conference centers (i.e., they have an academic feel to them).

Any idea what dorms we'll be staying at? I'm shooting for my old room on the 7th floor of Walker Tower.

Anonymous said...

An all on-campus meeting was our intention from the start but the administration said no. The reasons are political. We could have a long discussion about this as related to academic freedom and benefit to the university, etc., etc. We tried it and it did not work. Let's just say that the legislature here is creationist heavy and they are already pissed about our evolutionary activities.

And sorry, it looks like it will be Adams tower.

Rich Broughton

John Harshman said...

Please, let's have that long discussion. I'm interested in details. Will this be the first Evolution meeting to be picketed? Will the legislature pass a resolution against godless darwinism? Is evolution really too controversial for a university campus?

Glor said...

I agree with John, I think we should have the long discussion. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but I've always thought that higher education was better insulated from the problems fundamentalist politicians can create for evolutionary biology.

keim said...

Dan raises some good criticisms. With the hope of helping future organizers, I'll address them from the conference planners viewpoint.

-Venues were too far apart.
We can't control this. We have to choose rooms based on projected lecture attendance. The rooms are where they are. A true conference facility would have adjustable rooms (via partitions); but would lose the academic feel.

-The grouping of talks into sessions seemed pretty haphazard and often just wrong.
We used a computerized sorting system based off of information the presenters gave us. I wasn't involved much in that end of the conference, but will say two things: 1. Good luck getting 900 talks sorted to everyones satisfaction. 2. GIGO.

-The two main things that make an Evolution conference flow smoothly are coffee and beer. The coffee situation got fixed after the first day.
The coffee situation got fixed as soon as I heard about it. We underestimated demand. Luckily I was monitoring Twitter as only one person (ONE!) said anything to me about it. The event organizers are there to help. We can't fix what we aren't told about.

I would hope that future organizers would: a) try to wangle more drink tickets for the attendees and b) not charge people cash in addition to their drink ticket for decent beer.
Drink tickets were purely a function of the budget. Adding one more dollar to each ticket would have cost the conference about $4500. More drink tickets would have a similar effect. Either option would have meant a higher registration fee. There is no such thing as a free lunch (or drink). Drink tickets are purely a perceived freeby. You do pay for them. Our way actually cost most attendees less. Personally, I'd rather have no drink tickets, and a lower registration fee.

Dan Warren said...

I appreciate the inside look at some of the organizational hassles that go into this sort of conference. For what it's worth, I wrote to the organizer's email on the conference web site about the coffee situation on the first day because I could see that it was causing a lot of grumbling.

Even with the additional insight into the difficulty of organizing these things, however, I do feel that the things I mentioned went more smoothly at previous evolution conferences, so it's not impossible. Is there some central place where conference organizers can share their experiences and tips with future organizers? If not, there certainly should be - it seems as if people are reinventing a lot of wheels every time one of these rolls around, and no doubt future events would go more smoothly if organizers had access to information about what worked, and what didn't, at previous events.

As for the algorithm - I did see that, but I also saw the schedule. It looked to me like a neat idea that didn't work. I understand that organizing 900 talks is a huge logistical hassle, but the fact of the matter is that I heard far more complaining about the grouping of talks at this Evolution conference than at any previous one, which I would interpret as a vindication that human judgement still wins over number crunching for some things.

Dan Warren said...

In response to what Rich Broughton said - hooooo boy. The Oklahoma legistlature never ceases to amaze me.

Keim said...


You must the the one person who contacted me!

Please don't take my comments as me being offended or defensive. I'm not. I just wanted to provide some background. In all, I felt the conference went well. Some hiccups, but nothing major.

There is not a central place where Evolution conference organizers can store "lessons learned." Rather, for us at least, the past years organizer made himself open to a lot of questions. I don't know if a central repository would be useful. Each campus is its own beast. For instance, for us busing from the airport was a major logistical hurdle. Most other campuses have a regional airport much closer, thus don't need to worry about it.

Regardless, we enjoyed hosting the event and hope attendees felt they received good treatment.

Keim said...

I should note: As a homebrewer I do feel everyones beer pain. Man was not made to drink bad beer.

Fishorthology said...

Yes, the Oklahoma political climate is bad. Hosting Richard Dawkins and our Darwin 2009 celebration created considerable outrage at the capital. The university administration seemed to wish it would all just go away. While they ultimately supported academic freedom, it was not particularly compelling. Re Evolution 2011, they did not say explicitly that the subject of the meeting was the reason for denying our request to hold the meeting on campus, but my suspicion is that they just don't want to create any more reasons for the legislature to cut our budget or to put off creationist donors. Seems like a sell-your-soul stance to me but it is political expediency, pure and simple.

Perhaps this will all create some fun fireworks for the 2011 meetings.

Rich Broughton

Dan Warren said...

That sounds about like what I expected, Rich. It's really unfortunate that they chose to respond to pressure that way, and I'm sure the extra organizational hassles aren't going to make your job any easier. In addition, as an Oklahoman and an OU alum I find it more than a little embarrassing.

Is there anything that the community could do to help turn things around, or is it just a done deal by this point?

Brian O'Meara said...

I didn't go to this year's conference (new baby, new job, etc.) but just wanted to promote the view that having conferences in a typical convention center rather than campuses has some advantages. Most of us are already at campus-like venues, so spending even more time there isn't much of a draw, at least for me. And there's a benefit to holding a convention at a place intelligently-designed for having lots of people see talks, drink coffee, move between sessions, have housing, etc. rather than a campus exapted for that purpose. Potentially higher cost at a convention center is certainly an issue, though. And I wouldn't want to see the meetings happen at, say, Las Vegas every year, despite cheap flights and presumably reasonable conference and hotel costs, since there is a benefit to having an excuse to see different parts of the world (like Idaho and Oklahoma).

Dan Warren said...

I don't mind convention centers either, but maybe that's because the two conferences I've been to that were held at convention centers were in generally awesome places that I was excited to visit. I can definitely see how it could be a downer if the place wasn't very nice, but that's true of universities as well.