Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The cost of travel

Every summer I attend two conferences. One of them is almost always the big Ecological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. The other depends on my whims. I have a love/hate relationship with conferences that revolves around my love of seeing people I know and hearing about their research and my hate of meeting new people and being forced to figure out what I should be saying to someone I don't know.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were booking our travel for these meetings. We were feeling quite virtuous about this because the first meeting is not until July (we are not always this organized). With all the scares about fuel prices, we felt it wise to start early booking our travel. What started as a morning of excited virtuosity, ended with us angry, exasperated, frustrated and very very poor. We were shocked at the cost of air travel. Last year, we flew to Europe. For the same cost this year we can fly to....Milwaukee.

The goal of this piece is not to just complain about the cost of airfare (though venting about it does make me feel a little better). The cost of these meetings overall had also gone up: registration was higher, hotels were higher. At one point, we were so concerned at the costs that my husband (who has requested that I refer to him as General Disarray - a subject perhaps for another entry) and I briefly contemplated not going to at least one meeting. We didn't cancel, but we did start wondering what effect the cost of travel might have on the attendance at scientific meetings. We decided that there was a good chance that meetings might be smaller this year. If we didn't have pressing reasons to go this year, I think we would have forgone one of the two meetings. More importantly, we thought there might particularly be a strong impact on students.

When I was a student, I could go to the annual ESA meeting for about $200-400. This year, I am sending one of my students to ESA and just getting her to ESA (minus registration and housing) is going to cost that much (a fact I didn't realize when I made the offer). I am a strong believer that students should attend national meetings. It's a critical part of their education as a scientist. Not only does it allow them to hear what the latest research questions and results are, but allows them to meet and talk ideas with people they would never meet otherwise. However, what happens when sending a student to a meeting starts to cost 500-1000 dollars? Where does that money come from?

Now, part of the increase in cost is because students fly to meetings now. When I was a student, we'd often pile into a car, split gas money (also not an insignificant cost these days, but cheaper than flying), and pile 5-6 people into a hotel room. I have seen no sign that students at this institution or my previous institution do that. They seem to either fly, or they don't go. In some ways I am very nostalgic about the days of the long road trips to get to conferences. There was always this air of adventure and sacrifice for something important. I suspect, if prices continue to climb, that many of today's graduate students are going to be able to share in my nostalgia.

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