July 2014 – Survey Responses from the 2013 Meeting of the History of Science Society

The 2013 meeting of the History of Science Society in Boston, Massachusetts was a great success, from the program right down to the hors d’oeuvres. According to the annual follow-up survey, which received 150 responses (17.5% of attendees), over 80% of those participating in the survey found the 2013 location and program to be satisfactory (the majority reported being “highly satisfied”). The Society surpassed its delegate record from ten years ago (804 for the 2003 meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts) with a total of 857 registered for the Boston gathering. Considering HSS’s number of regular members has declined nearly 25% since 2003, the high number of attendees was doubly gratifying.

While the hotel’s location in the Waterfront District elicited some negative comments by those who wished to explore Boston’s cuisine, shopping, and cultural attributes (although it should be noted that the location was a vast improvement over the hotel in no-man’s land when we met in Cambridge) there was high satisfaction with the spaces provided within the hotel for meetings and panels. We do, however, empathize with those of you who still get a chill when thinking about the temperature of the rooms in the convention center. Not even great attendance and the accompanying body heat was enough to warm the rooms over 62 degrees (and we even registered a reading in the 50-degree range during our “Science in the Streets” event!).

Former and Current Editors cutting the Isis anniversary cake.

Left to Right: Former editors Margaret Rossiter, Arnold Thackray, and Ron Numbers, were joined by current editor, Bernie Lightman, in cutting the Isis anniversary cake.

Turnout was excellent at both of our receptions: the first in the hotel’s Mezzanine Foyer overlooking the lobby and the second at the MIT Museum, the latter marking our official celebration of the 100th anniversary of Isis. At least 70% of responses were favorable regarding the food, drink, and length of the first reception, with some comments about the rather awkward space, which could be difficult to maneuver. The response to the space in the MIT Museum (made possible by generous contributions from MIT and Harvard), on the other hand, was overwhelmingly favorable and over 75% of respondents were satisfied with the food, drink, accessibility, transportation, and length of that reception, calling it “Fantastic!”; “Marvelous!”; “Splendid!”; and the “highlight of the meeting.” (Note: when it comes to food and drink, we hope that more hotels will begin to offer gluten-free catering options for those of you with food sensitivities. Rest assured that we have taken your suggestions into account, although a tasty gluten-free beer may continue to bedevil even our best minds.)

The meeting got off to a strong start with 72% of respondents either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with our outreach event “Science in the Streets” (43 respondents) and 61% indicating satisfaction with the plenary session (62 respondents). Many of you were pleased that HSS is offering an outreach event at our annual meeting, one noting, “It was a great way to demonstrate ways citizen[s] can engage and be engaged by academics/scientists.” Some of you noted that many of the talks at “Science in the Streets” were too academic and suggested that even the sheer number of talks may have affected the number of non-HSS audience members (of which, we believe, there were only a couple of dozen). And while the spirit of the event is one that our members support and want to see continue, we need to do a better job of engaging a non-academic audience. One of our goals going forward is to make the event even more visible and accessible to the public while still maintaining its academic integrity.

We received feedback on a wide array of other questions. While few who attended needed to use our dependent care resources, many commented on how much they appreciated these options and commented on the “forward-thinking” nature of such offerings. One important question we asked, looking forward to a meeting in Holland in 2019, was about the possibility of moving the annual meeting to August in order to accommodate more non-US and Canadian participants. Opinion was split here, with 60% stating that they would attend a meeting outside of the United States and Canada but only 44% in favor of moving the meeting to August to accommodate an international audience. Those who were not in favor of moving the meeting to August cited research and vacation time as the main obstacles.

General comments on the meeting often suggested that there was so much going on (we ran 14 concurrent sessions) that it left little downtime to socialize with other participants and meet new people. Many respondents also requested that we explore something beyond the typical paper presentation model for some panels, pointing to posters and short science cafe-style (and PowerPoint-free) presentations as good examples. One respondent suggested that we build on the poster session by making it a more lively event, perhaps mixing it with a reception to ensure attendance and engagement as well as prizes for best poster to give scholars an incentive to present their work in this way. Some who were happy to stick to the traditional presentation model suggested that we train scholars (of all levels) to deliver papers in more engaging ways. Another suggested: “It would be great to explore some of the new things going on at the ‘un conferences’ like ScienceOnline. These are people who are maximizing their conference experience by breaking out of the paper panels model.”

While attendees have been using mobile devices and platforms like Twitter to document the meeting for a few years, 2013 was the first year that HSS actively encouraged the use of social media during events. While adoption of these devices will take some getting used to, 57% of respondents used either a smartphone or a tablet during the meeting, although only 17% of you reported using our Grupio online meeting application. More than a quarter of those responding (26%) followed or contributed to the Twitter feed (a great showing for our first year of official Tweeting!) and we’re happy to report that 69% of those surveyed found the use of this technology to be no distraction at all. In the future we will work to schedule events (like a “Tweet-up”) for those of you who use Twitter to network during the HSS meeting.

When asked what could make meetings more effective and enjoyable, respondents had a variety of ideas, but many mentioned the need to make the conference more social and inviting. Graduate student and early career respondees said they would appreciate the opportunity to meet and chat with senior scholars in the field, suggesting that we plan more informal gatherings and encourage people to mingle. This is only problematic in the sense that many of our mid-career and senior scholars use the conference to meet up with friends and former colleagues and find it challenging to set time aside to meet new people.

The single, greatest obstacle to conference attendance was cost (35%), followed distantly by the related “Obtaining funding from your institution/organization” (19%). We will keep this in mind going forward as we continue to offer travel grants, dependent care grants, meetings in cities with easy access, and create lean budgets while continuing to plan full, stimulating, engaging conference programs in cities that offer multiple entertainment and dining options.

As you might imagine, it’s challenging to put on a conference that will make everyone happy, but we are heartened by the overwhelmingly positive responses we received for the survey. We hope you will continue to share the ways in which the meeting was helpful to you, as well as your suggestions about how we can improve future meetings.