Why do conferences have themes?

Images: Twitter conversation with Tamara Kelly, @TLJKelly, reproduced with her permission; meeting logos, fair use for critical commentary.

 Warning: I’ve got my curmudgeon hat on today.

I just registered for the 2016 International Congress of Entomology, which brought to mind a recent Twitter conversation (pictured above). Tamara Kelly was wondering why this teaching-and-learning conference had a theme, and suggested that “You’d never see a scientific conference with a ‘fit the research you’ve been stressing over for 2 years into this artificial theme’”. Well, it must be Somebody’s Law that as soon as you say “never” on the internet, someone calls you on it, and I’m afraid I was That Guy. 2016 ICE is themed “Entomology Without Borders”. In fact, almost every conference I go to has a theme, and I’ve never understood why.

ICE 2016 logoOf course, conferences aren’t infinitely broad. It shouldn’t be a surprise if the International Congress of Entomology is mostly about entomology! And nobody is surprised either by more narrowly focused meetings, like the Gordon Conference on Speciation I attended last year. My puzzlement really has to do with themes for annual meetings of scientific societies. Take the Ecological Society of America – here are a few years’ worth of conference themes:

  • 2016: Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene
  • 2015: Ecological Science at the Frontier
  • 2014: From Oceans to Mountains: it’s all Ecology
  • 2013: Sustainable Pathways: Learning From the Past and Shaping the Future
  • 2012: Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing, and Sustaining our Ecosystems

Why? It seems to me there are two ways a theme can go. Either it can be so mushily broad as to exclude nobody and nothing (ESA 2014), or it can actually mean something but then exclude a good fraction of conference-goers (ESA 2016). What’s accomplished by either? I don’t think anything is. The Society of the Study of Evolution seems go every year with the implicit theme “This Year’s Bunch of Cool Stuff about Evolution”, and it’s a great conference.

ASN 2016 logo

As a grad student and postdoc, I worried about this. I’d see a conference I wanted to attend, notice it had a theme unrelated to my own research, and decide that I’d be unwelcome, or at best ignored. That concern seems silly to me now, but really, what other message was I supposed to take? If you go to the trouble of saying something – indeed, trumpeting it in a big banner across your website* and putting it right in your meeting’s logo – surely it’s reasonable for me to think that you mean something by it?

Well, no. I realize now what message I’m supposed to take from the conference theme: none at all. Once the conference theme has been picked and worked into that lovely conference logo, I’m supposed to ignore it. And so I do, and I think everyone else does too**. I haven’t tried this, but I bet if I polled people in the hallways at my next conference, no more than a tiny fraction could even tell me what the conference’s theme was (at least, without a surreptitious glance at their souvenir tote-bag).

ESA 2016 logoSo either a conference theme is meaningless, in which case we don’t need it; or it means something but we all ignore it, or it means something and we label some folks’ science as not fitting in. Each of these options is absurd. Science doesn’t work by us picking a new theme for our research each year – and thank goodness, because we’d never get anywhere. So can we just stop pretending to theme our conferences?

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) February 22, 2016

*^Except of course that for my first conferences, there weren’t web sites. There wasn’t a web for them to have sites on. I am so old.

**^Much to my surprise, Tamara pointed out that her conference actually uses fit to the conference theme as one factor in evaluating abstracts for inclusion. So perhaps people attending that conference have to pay a little attention to the theme. Although if it was me, I’d probably ignore it even more, just out of pig-headedness.

21 thoughts on “Why do conferences have themes?

  1. Jeremy Fox

    I’ve long had the same question about ESA meeting theme–why do they bother? No one cares.

    Great point that the evolution meetings do fine without a theme.

    I wonder if it’s a public relations thing. Do the organizers feel like they need a theme to give the media a “hook” for stories about the meeting? (And if so, does it work?) Do they feel like they need a theme so as to give some structure to the little introductory blurb of text that they’re going to put up on the conference homepage? Do they need a theme so that whoever speaks in the opening plenary has something to give a passing nod to?

    I also wonder if there’s no reason. If it’s just something that lots of conferences do because they and everyone else have long done it. (I’m now curious: when was the first ESA meeting to have a theme?)

    I believe the ESA used to consider relevance to the theme as one factor in deciding what symposium proposals to approve. Or at least, they said they would on paper. But I’m not sure it was ever a big factor, or if it still is. And even if it was a factor, the response on the part of symposium organizers was mostly to just propose whatever symposia they wanted and then bulls**t about the relevance to the conference theme.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I honestly hadn’t thought of the “media press-release hook” theory. I bet that’s it – and everything else is just collateral damage. I hope I haven’t messed everything up by arguing that themes don’t matter…


  2. David Mellor

    I’ve always wondered that too. My best guess, along Jeremy’s line of thought, is public relations to those outside of the meeting. I bet the meeting is more likely to generate interest in the media if the theme is compelling and timely. Perhaps members of the public are more sympathetic to academic conferences when they sound timely and relevant, instead of “purely academic.” I have no idea but am curious to hear what folks who make the themes say about it- I tweeted to ESA to see if they’d weigh in.

    Your point is well taken- I used to feel disinvited to meetings if my topic didn’t seem relevant, and today they seem mostly like wasted marketing effort. Perhaps if the organizers really wanted conversations about the stated theme, there could be some proportion of sessions devoted to talks that are really in line with that theme, but the majority of time could be reserved for “What’s happened in ecology over the past year” so that folks wouldn’t feel that odd pressure to fit a square into a round hole.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ecolutionaryevology

    Great post, Steve! Thank you for linking your footnotes. Very helpful for the reader.

    I suspect that themes serve to link together the central conference events, specifically the plenary talks. I did not go to ESA this year but I suspect from reading over their plenaries (http://esa.org/baltimore/plenary-sessions/), it seems that they were (perhaps loosely) tied to this theme. It may just be an easy way for conference organizers to pick plenaries, or design logos.



  4. Eric Lamb

    I suspect the presence of themes are often driven by organizing committees thinking: everyone else has a theme….
    That said, at this spring’s Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution meeting, we did set a theme of ‘Ecology and Evolution of Managed Landscapes’ because it represented one of the strength areas of the host institution, and we wanted to highlight the meeting to local researchers who didn’t normally go to the CSEE meeting.
    We didn’t discriminate in any way against abstracts that didn’t fit into the theme.


  5. atmurre

    I have literally never considered whether my abstract fits within a conference theme. I guess I thought themes were meaningless? If asked, I would expect the organized symposia (maybe) and invited plenaries (definitely) to be related. Or at least suggest the direction who to invited to do the plenaries.

    My first conferences were AOU and PSG so maybe they don’t have themes? Checking: 2000 AOU was ‘Living on the Edge – Birds 2000’ but that might have been because it was in Newfoundland; 2001 AOU didn’t have a theme (or logo); 2008 had a logo but no apparent theme. PSG still don’t seem to have themes.


  6. Manu Saunders

    Hear hear. Agree with Jeremy’s point, I always just assumed it was a media tool. It’s kind of pointless because a conference already has a theme! The Ecol Society is a conference about ecology, the Ento Society is a conference about Entomology… so creating a theme within a theme is just redundant. Perhaps if societies want to have ‘themed’ conferences, they should have more than one a year! 😉


  7. Quiet Waters

    The latest ICE theme is an exercise in irony I think. Given the barriers of a high registration fee, a location in a tourist hotspot in Florida (with its attendant high travel & accommodation costs) it’s probably never been harder for entomologists from less wealthy countries to get there.


  8. Trish (ASNAmNat)

    Hi Steve,
    You don’t really say which camp you think the ASN conference banner falls into, but I thought I’d point out that the statement in the banner wasn’t a theme in the sense this post is about. That’s just a rephrase of the mission statement of the ASN. I think it was meant to remind people what an ASN conference might be since unlike “Congress of Entomology” it might not be obvious–or it might even attract the naturists 😉


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Hi Trish – would attracting the naturists be bad? (No, let’s not go there). I’m not sure what to think of the ASN one. I see your point that it’s more of a tagline than a theme. It’s an interesting example of one that might be more inclusive than we really mean – would ASN be a good place for someone conceptually unifying quantum chemistry with enzyme kinetics? I mean, that’s a silly example, but the tagline doesn’t seem to communicate well that ASN is ecology/evolution/systematics with strong encouragement for synthesis OF THOSE with other disciplines. I’m going to stay on the fence on this particular one, I think! (Thanks for commenting).


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  10. Margaret Kosmala

    All good points. My feeling is that there is a symposium or two on the theme, but other than that no one cares. Or, rather, as you point out, no one *who has been to these conferences before* cares. Because, like you, the meeting theme stressed me as a grad student, and I made sure my abstract linked to it. The other annual conference in my area of research is the American Geophysical Union’s. I don’t think they ever have a theme. I’ll join the curmudgeonly bandwagon with you on this one. Let’s get rid of meeting themes for annual society meetings.

    PS. Awesome linked footnotes! 🙂


  11. Judy Myers

    I love themes. I find it makes me think for a few seconds – “What does that mean”. Some are interesting thoughts and some are boring. Interesting is this year’s CSEE in Newfoundland.

    “Rather than a traditional conference theme, this year we have more of a conference sentiment, captured by a line from the Ode to Newfoundland: “From windswept land to spindrift swirl”. Our goal is for conference program to address questions in ecology and evolution that transcend systems, and we encourage contributions from a diversity of study species and systems.”

    I can hardly wait.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Judy, and especially for offering a defence of themes. The CSEE one may be something of an anti-theme: deliberately trying to broaden rather than narrow one’s impression of the meeting’s scope? (I also can hardly wait for CSEE 2016.)


  12. Mark Westoby

    It’s a very good question why conferences have themes — have had this discussion in quite a few conference bars. In the case of Ecol Soc Australia, it got started mainly because it was useful to researchers in agencies — they could go to their supervisors and say “this conference is about what I’m supposed to be working on, please authorize me to go”. (Not a problem for university people, they don’t really have to justify to anyone, they just have to find the money somewhere.) So it was quite a fine art really to craft a conference theme so it looked relevant to non-scientist government-agency managers, across as wide a spread of different agencies as possible. As time has gone by, this role has devolved more to themes of individual symposia within the meeting.

    Personally I still feel emotionally attached to the older “open forum” idea — just sit down and listen to a random selection of recent advances. But fewer and fewer conferences seem to make any provision for this, you have to attach yourself to a theme whether you like it or not.

    Have just registered for the Assoc Trop Biol and Cons meeting at Montpellier. This turned out to have 66 symposium themes (but no open forum). I’m told they get about 500 participants, so that’s about 8 people per symposium.


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