The Society for Neuroscience offered apologies and reversed an earlier decision to not offer refunds following widespread criticism over initial refusal to refund attendees that had registered for its now canceled in-person meeting.
Regardless of what stage of your career you are at, if your job entails studying the brain, the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting is one of the most valuable networking opportunities in existence. Tens of thousands of scientists gather at this event every year to present their research, listen to talks, and learn what sort of work is being done elsewhere in the field. It should come as no surprise, then, that they also pay good money to attend, and that said the money comes from a finite pool of resources their laboratories have rendered available for travel and educational use. The precise amount depends both on how far they are located from the conference’s US-based meeting locations and what type of SfN member they are registered as, but registration fees alone range from $40 for early registration of undergraduate attendees to $1,005 for online registration of non-members. Stack travel expenses onto that, and it’s not uncommon for attendance by the average scientist to cost several hundreds of dollars — if not more.
Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancelation of the 2020 meeting, the Society for Neuroscience did make plans to host an in-person conference for 2021: It was to be held in Chicago, Illinois, assuming a hybrid model of in-person attendance and virtual conferencing and met with equal parts enthusiasm for the return of a staple of the research community and skepticism in the face of the Delta variant. Nonetheless, scientists of all career stages registered, and by early October, around 30,000 attendees had made arrangements to attend. Unfortunately, prospective in-person attendees were left disappointed when the event’s cancelation was announced early on October 8th.
The Society for Neuroscience will hold #SfN21 as a fully virtual experience, eliminating all in-person options that had been planned for McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois.
— Society for Neuroscience (SfN) (@SfNtweets) October 8, 2021
Disappointment quickly turned into frustration and outrage when it became clear that SfN was explicitly refusing to issue refunds, offering only a 50% discount on membership fees for 2022:
As with any challenges that don’t come with a financial safety net, this issue disproportionally affects the most vulnerable populations. While many schools and laboratories handle these expenses for their members, not all do, and grants covering travel to and from such conferences are limited in their number. That means that there will, invariably, be a number of researchers whose personal accounts are now several hundreds of dollars lighter to no professional or academic gain, and this is specifically likely to affect the least privileged scientists in the field: early-career researchers and those that don’t enjoy well-funded institutional support.
Scientists quickly moved to voice their discontent at the decision, as well as the fact that SfN leadership had not made the call until shortly before the early registration deadline:
— Ivan Alekseichuk (@CogNeuroEng) October 8, 2021
Offering 50% off the $74 membership fee is an absolute joke. Instead, how about you transfer the $459 that I spent to present an in person poster to next years meeting?
— Tanner Stevenson (@TanLStevenson) October 8, 2021
I paid you $1000 out of pocket to go to a live conference and present 2 posters. I never would have done that for a zoom meeting. A sale on future membership is laughable. Please do the right thing and offer a refund.
— PeJayEm (@labcoatmafia) October 8, 2021
The rationale behind the decision was somewhat opaque in that SfN did not offer a comprehensive explanation for the lack of reimbursement. The organization was to charge less for online tickets than in-person attendance, suggesting that it was aware of the value difference between the two experiences.
The calls for foundational changes and unbecoming similes appear to have reached administrative elements within the organization fairly quickly, as SfN Trainee Advisory Committee chair and UCLA assistant professor Michael F. Wells noted his commitment to doing right by early-career researchers affected by the debacle within three hours of the announcement:
As the Chair of the SfN Trainee Advisory Committee, I am going to do everything in my (albeit limited) power to rectify this situation for all the young scientists affected by this late decision.
The financial burden that has been placed on trainees is unacceptable. https://t.co/5kGXdMD5aw
— Michael F. Wells (@mfwells5) October 8, 2021
Dr. Wells’ statement was followed by an email authored by SfN President Barry Everitt and sent to society members early Monday morning, in which an apology was issued. The in-person conference had to be canceled because the Delta variant surge had led to nearly half of the program’s planned speakers and presenters being either unable or unwilling to travel to the conference’s Chicago venue. Everitt further mentioned that several European members and delegates would not be able to attend due to international travel bans likely persisting through the conference’s planned dates. To the relief of the research community, the email also announced that SfN would be issuing refunds to attendees who choose not to attend the virtual meeting.
The cancelation, Everitt wrote, would translate into “a myriad of financial losses”. This is not the first time SfN has faced such trouble. A continuing decline in membership and attendance over the past few years, as well as the roughly two million dollar deficit the organization listed in its last annual report present worrying problems for the society’s leadership — especially since the annual meeting is cited as SfN’s single greatest source of income, making up 51% of its annual revenue.
The controversy surrounding the event offers yet another reminder of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resurgence following the spread of various variants, and particularly the multi-modal nature of the damage done.
Kevin W. Rusch
Kevin W. Rusch is a scientist specializing in computational cognitive neuroscience at the UC Davis Moxon Neurorobotics Laboratory. Following thesis work at the University of Cambridge's Consciousness and Cognition Laboratory and aided by an interdisciplinary background ranging from biochemistry to data science, he is primarily interested in data-driven investigations into complex issues.