23rd Severe Storms Conference in St. Louis

Information and Personal Thoughts on the Upcoming SLS Conference

The 23rd AMS Conference on Severe Local Storms is November 6-10 at the Adam’s Mark in downtown St. Louis. I’ve uploaded the latest program in MS Excel format for your convenience, in addition to the menu driven version present on the AMS conference website. Note that this program may change, especially if papers are withdrawn or session chairs back out. I’ll try to upload any changes ASAP to the same address.

For details on registering and attending, see the AMS meeting website. We’ll be holding the oral sessions on the fourth floor (floor plan, the “Tiny URL” is http://tinyurl.com/n668x ), in the areas A and B combined as one big room. According to the AMS coordinator, posters will be in that “Pre-Convene” area on the first floor, with a view of the Gateway Arch.

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Some thoughts follow from “behind the scenes”. The following views, as always in this BLOG, represent my own only and not those of the AMS or anyone else on the committee.

For a couple of years, since the last AMS Severe Local Storms Conference in Hyannis MA, I’ve co-chaired a committee to do the next one. Several of us asked folks in Hyannis, and others in the SLS community who couldn’t make it, how it could be done better. We listened. Having to work within organizational rules and in a mindset of consensus kept those of us who are raging idealists (like me) from getting everything we wanted. But we came up with a lot of innovative ideas for invited speakers, seminars, panel discussions and such — more two way interaction with the community and more in depth exposure to concepts in SLS science.

Unfortunately, all that, plus a large roster of speakers (particularly new speakers and students, who have been historically underrepresented), looked to be nearly impossible to jam into a one week conference, at least without some major and unquestionably detrimental concessions, and cutbacks to something good. It was either that, or run parallel sessions, the concept of which makes my skin crawl because it deprives attendees of the opportunity to fully participate and immerse themselves in cutting edge science throughout the week.

Along came the AMS annual meeting in Atlanta, and a chance for a presence there. Bingo! Ultmately we decided to (in effect) split this mega-conference in two —
1. Have the conventional SLS format in a later conference with no parallel sessions, and
2. The longer talks, invited speakers and panel-Ds in a Severe Storms Symposium, to be collocated with the AMS national meeting in Atlanta for maximum exposure to the broadest audience.

I wasn’t able to make it to Atlanta for the Symposium, but I heard it was a success thanks in no small part to the brilliance and leadership of the co-chair, Paul Markowski, who did most of the work for the Symposium.

Though I’ve served as leader for the subsequent arrangement of the conventional SLS, it was, is, and will not be one man show. In order for one person to do this it would take far more time than I — or any of the rest of us — have had. Having a committee is a good thing, and I can’t thank them enough for their help! Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas for a conference, and having a small group composed of representatives from research, SPC, NWS field forecasters and TV (as we did) maximizes the potential that something good will be “thought of” and brought to the table. Such a committee shouldn’t be more than about 6 or 7 people, though; otherwise indvidual expertise gets diluted, and too many cooks are stirring the stew.

Unlike some past committees, we’ve had no resume-padding seat warmers or half-hearted participants. Everyone has been active and expressive in this deal. Everyone has participated, and often. This bunch hasn’t been shy about expressing themselves to each other, candidly and straightforwardly. I like that! As long as all participants are willing to check egos at the door, it’s the best, most honest way to communicate.

We picked a location and time based on a basic, common sense ideal: The SLS Conference shouldn’t act as a posh paid vacation under the guise of a storm conference. This is about science and the exchange of ideas! Therefore…

Locate centrally, near a major airport, and in the fall, in order to
* Maximize geographic opportunities for student and NWS participation from universities and offices with severe storms expertise;
* Keep travel costs lower than at some far-flung mountain or coast resort, also to encourage the presence of student and NWS folks with limited travel funding;
* Have the conference out of severe storms season when many forecasters and research project participants might not be available;
* Minimize monopolistic, high-airfare travel burdens often found at smaller to mid-size airports.

We worked with AMS to research available venues in four cities that resulted from a larger list of possibilities that got whittled down by the four stars above: Memphis, Dallas-Ft, Worth, Kansas City and St. Louis. The venue was more important than the city, but having a multitude of dining and entertainment options in walking distance (for folks without cars) was important and did eliminate a few places. Next, were slots available at good venues at the right times? Were the venues too costly, prone to drive up the already high expense of the meeting for participants? In many cases, yes to either or both. Is there high-speed Internet? In the end, only one venue was standing as a best option: The St. Louis Adam’s Mark. Fortunately it was hosting the NWA annual meeting, and we heard good things.

Timing was hard because of venue constraints, Federal fiscal year changeover, the move of OU, CIMMS, NSSL and SPC to new facilities in Norman, increasing cold and risk of nasty winter weather as the weeks go by, and other factors I can’t recall right now. Could we accommodate every possibility? No. For example, the slot we got couldn’t avoid a minor Federal holiday, so some NWS folks will have to travel on HOL leave, annual leave or a day off. I’m in that boat. Cest la vie. It’s well worth it. I’d take AL if I had to (for the sake of the science) but fortunately I don’t have to…just use HOL for Friday.

And so, after springime delays for severe weather season, we set about developing a series of traditional 15 minute oral slots and poster sessions based on the submissions received. Notably, not all submissions were accepted. A few more folks applied for orals than there was room, but not as many got “bumped” to poster as at some conferences. It actually helped that submission numbers were down, which also indicates more willingness on the part of those who do submit to make the effort do be there and to do it well. It remains to be seen how the conference will turn out, but I am optimistic this SLS conference will rock. If you can be there, and can afford AMS’ registration fees, be there.

I’m especially excited for the young scientists — the many first time presenters and students who will be there. I am hugely looking forward to seeing these twenty-and thirty-somethings start to take the batons of SLS science into the rest of this century. [OK, I’m still a thirty-something, but not for long…] Yes, these folks are the future of severe storms meteorology, and this is where it starts. I’m honored to play a part in their development as scientists and in what surely will be the eventual greatness of some of them. I truly believe those who are still around 40 years from now will look back at this roster of presenters and say that a few giants of the science got their first major exposure at this conference. That’s cool. It motivates me every time I start to get tired of dealing with the hassles (and there are some, believe me). This is the future of meteorology, right here.

The hotel looks nice, it’s close to lots of food and after-hours entertainment in downtown St. Louis, and the banquet (Wednesday night) looks to have some great food (for once…not the usual “AMS chicken”!) from high atop “Top of the Met.” [I must thank Alan Shapiro, who volunteered early for setting that up.]

Did we think of everything, and is it going to be a perfect conference? No way. I would be delusional to promise anything, except for the opportunity to engage in some good science. And that’s what it’s all about. But you bet I will pass along ideas to the next conference chair. Don’t be shy. During and after the conference, I want to be told what went wrong and how it can be done better. I want to be told what went right and should be kept. It’s my willing duty to pass along whatever is needed to make future severe storms meetings even better, whether or not they are affiliated with AMS.

Future conference organizers, take note. Heed these words. It’s not easy. Is it worth it? Ask me after the conference! But I bet I’ll say that it was.

This was a lot of effort. Indeed — especially if doing some of the stuff now arranged by AMS, such as venue contracts and setup logistics — it could be a full-time job for two people for several months. Whether through AMS or not, future severe storms conferences must account for the business and bookkeeping end of things. It’s a big part of the process and must not be taken lightly. Two people in the AMS (Cara Campbell and Judith Ziemnik) have been hugely helpful here, and Cara in particular has been the kind recipient of many abrupt requests, suggestions for betterment, idealistic rants, and nagging questions from yours truly.

Yes, the submission deadlines are firm and non-negotiable. We went a week later than we would have ordinarily, taking the stated deadline right up to the drop-dead date the AMS gave us. This gives everyone a level playing field, so that

1) Everybody has the extra week (what would have been the “grace period”) to turn in papers and

2) People who turn in their work on time don’t have to watch others procrastinate and flaunt deadlines.

Why is Sep. 15th the deadline? According to AMS, this is the drop-dead date by which to have papers ready to send to the CD printer. Why does it take so long to burn and print CDs before a conference? I don’t know. Ask AMS brass. [I know I can cook and label a brick of ’em in far less time than a month and a half (more below).]

Many folks have complained about the costs of these conferences (me included). As committee chair I have no direct control over this but have managed to exert some influence and make requests for efficiencies that have kept costs from rising more than they already did. I wish I could claim to have done better in this regard.

There’s a fine balance between trimming fluff and holding the meeting in a nice place, instead of a dank old roach motel with a big meeting room. The venue needs to (on its own merit) have incentives to encourage attendance…especially in middle America in November. This isn’t a resort vacation, wasn’t designed that way, and wasn’t intended that way. It’s about the science. But folks should have ample opportunities to unwind after the day’s sessions.

Still the charges are high — too high for some. For a more detailed discussion of the issue of high AMS meeting costs and the reasons behind them, see this essay by Doswell and Brooks, and this more detailed examination by Doswell.

There has been a good deal of discussion and debate, within in some quarters of the SLS community, over whether the SLS conference (or a different, new version) can be done better outside the oversight of the AMS. There is some precedent with the Cyclone Workshop (PDF). As scientists we ought to be open to the possibilities and not be blindly beholden to the monopoly, whether or not something comes of the idea.

In summary, advantages of an independent conference would include more direct accountability, streamlined cost-cutting passed on to the attendees, far lower “page charges” for CD supplies and burning (something I can do for a few hundred bucks total with a new multi-CD burner under warranty, and a few bricks of CDs), and preparation totally by scientists, for scientists.

Disadvantages mainly would revolve around a loss of AMS negotiating experience. Don’t underestimate this. There would be a steeper learning curve regarding business acumen and contractual haggling on the part of folks who are scientists — not businessmen — in their day jobs. Overpriced as the AMS conferences can be, the folks who do this are putting in a lot of effort and deserve thanks for it (as above). Can it be done as well for far less? Probably. I’ll stop with that food for thought.



Comments

2 Responses to “23rd Severe Storms Conference in St. Louis”

  1. Chuck Doswell on September 7th, 2006 4:20 pm

    Regarding high costs for conferences … as discussed on my webpage devoted to conference costs, by far the majority of the AMS conference costs are tied up in “overhead” in one form or another, with a big chunk of it going to pay salaries of AMS staffers. If you run a conference like the Cyclone Workshop (CW), the registration fees are one-tenth those for AMS conferences – BECAUSE the organizers do the hard work of putting it together, without charging the participants for their time spent on the conference. Therein lies the difference. Period.

    Anyone wishing to put on a conference for much lower costs can do so, by the simple expedient of being willing to take on their share of the burden of putting one of these together – and leaving the AMS out of it altogether. If you don’t want to do much work – just show up and enjoy – then quit griping to me or anyone else about the high AMS conference costs. Such laziness and unwillingness to take on some of the responsibility for a conference reduces your input to ZERO VALUE!

    As for negotiating skills of the AMS – sorry, but I don’t value them at all. The AMS staffers do not necessarily negotiate for the things that we participants want. They negotiate for what they perceive is good for the AMS. Any coincidence between those two is purely coincidental.

    As for “luxury locations” – I’ve seen both sides of this, and for MY money, a nice setting is conducive to a good conference. I suspect a sort of puritanical notion that if we get to go to a conference, we should be “nose to the grindstone” for the full duration of the conference. After attending my very first conference back in the 1970s, it became clear that this was not a good strategy. At least not for me and lots of my colleagues. Boring midwestern locations are o.k. once in a while, but if the SLS Conf. committee made it a routine choice, I would be even less inclined to attend the SLS Conf. than I now am.

    As a matter of fact, I will NEVER attend another, unless someone besides me is footing the bill – not likely, at present. I will NOT pay those outrageous fees to the AMS out of my own pocket. I AM attending the CW at my own expense, however. For me, it’s become a matter of principle, especially now that the US government is no longer sending me.

    FWIW, as I was completing my tenure with NOAA, I came to the realization that the AMS has figured out a way to get subsidies from the government (directly, or indirectly through NSF and other funding agencies). The lion’s share of the fees charged by the AMS that make up the bulk of their income (conference registration, publication page charges, etc.) wind up being paid by the government. They can charge the individual members less by putting most of their costs onto the government – which leaves the government with less funding to do actual research, of course. It appeals to most members, because that money is not coming out of their pockets. Nice scam.

  2. tornado on October 28th, 2006 10:31 pm

    The AMS Severe Local Storms Conference in St. Louis is a week away. The online agenda has been updated several times since the above post, and the latest version in MS Excel spreadsheet format still can be found at the above link!

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