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Vol. 39, No. 1, January 2010
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2009 History of Science Society Annual Meeting Survey

by Matthew White, HSS Office

Those of us who worked at the 2009 History of Science Society meeting this past November in Phoenix, have no doubt that this was one of the HSS’s most successful conferences ever. Whether a paid staff member or a volunteer, we heard more compliments and positive reports from members who attended than anyone can remember. Things are never perfect, of course, and we did receive complaints about the conference, as well as suggestions for future improvements, but on balance, we received not just an overwhelming number of compliments compared to complaints, but also a noticeable increase in the number and passion of rave reviews this year over previous years. 

Quick Links....

Notes from the Inside
Member News
2009 HSS Annual Meeting Survey
2009 Employment Survey
Adventures in Romantic Science
The True Story of Newton and the Apple
Perspectives on Science
Darwin Film Released
What’s In A Session?
Letter: How Not to Engage “Anti-Evolutionist” Historians
The John Tyndall Correspondence Project
The 2010 Election Slate
2009 Prize Winners
D. Kim Foundation for the History of Science and Technology in East Asia
HSS 2010 Annual Meeting: Call for Papers
Jobs, Conferences, Grants

Although the personal feedback is important, the HSS realizes that we need a rigorous analysis on which to build better meetings in the future. So in order to gauge the opinions and thoughts of the 594 attendees of the 2009 Annual Meeting we invited all registrants to complete our annual survey. We are gratified that 191 people responded (32%) to this call and would like to share the results.

We asked respondents to rank general aspects of the conference on a scale that included very unsatisfactory, unsatisfactory, neutral, satisfactory, and very satisfactory. By far the least popular aspect of the conference was the city of Phoenix itself. Of those surveyed, 28% reported being neutral about Phoenix and 31% responded that the city was unsatisfactory or very unsatisfactory. The most common complaint was a lack of grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants near the hotel. This was also a common complaint heard at the conference itself. Though many were dissatisfied with the local options for food and shopping, some respondents did report being pleased with local restaurants and bars.

Conversely, the Hyatt Regency, the conference hotel, scored very well, with over 84% of respondents being satisfied or very satisfied with the hotel. This also corresponds to the verbal feedback we received at the meeting itself and meshes with the experiences of HSS staff and volunteers. The hotel staff was helpful and responded quickly to requests.

The disparity between the responses to the city and to the hotel is illustrative of how difficult it can be to find the perfect site for a meeting the size of HSS. The Executive Office and the Committee on Meetings and Programs weigh many variables, including location, airport service, travel costs, convenience, amenities, and expense. Locations that excel in one or more areas do not always please in other areas, but these surveys will continue to help us track which variables are most important to attendees.

As for the other aspects of the conference ranked in this opening section of the survey, most respondents reported being satisfied or very satisfied: session rooms (72% satisfied or better), A/V support (80%), book exhibit (65%), and the program (88%). Respondents were especially pleased with the registration process, both in advance of the meeting and onsite. The former earned 90% satisfactory or above, the latter earned 81%, and both earned only 3% unsatisfactory or below, the lowest disapproval of all surveyed facets of the meeting. Other than the city, no aspect of the meeting earned disapproval ratings in double digits. The HSS executive office was especially pleased with the high approval of the registration process as it reflects years of honing our online processing, as well as a team of friendly and helpful volunteers on-site.

In addition to the general logistics of the meeting, the HSS also wanted to gauge the interest and response to specific parts of the program. Only 38% attended the co-plenary sessions on Thursday night . The other 62% reported that they were busy socializing with colleagues and friends, both formally and informally, or that they did not arrive early enough to attend.

This year 63% of respondents attended the Awards Ceremony and/or the Distinguished Lecture on Friday evening. Of those who attended many liked the “In Memoriam” slide presentation and others enjoyed the lecture and awards presentations. However, some people thought we should offer more of an opportunity for prizewinners to speak and thank those who helped them win, as long as those remarks are brief. The virtue of brevity in any such remarks were very important to all respondents. M. Norton Wise gave the Distinguished Lecture following the Awards Ceremony and 61% judged it satisfactory or better. The respondents found the content challenging, however, they were split on whether the subject was a positive development or not. The biggest complaint registered for the evening was the lack of food at the reception, and it seems many people were unaware of the cash bar.

The Poster Sessions on Saturday afternoon were popular, although respondents were not as enthusiastic about them as other aspects of the program. Though disapproval was under 10%, more people were neutral or merely satisfied with the length, location, and topics of the posters than with every other aspect of the program. Respondents were fairly unanimous that the posters were not up long enough and were difficult to find. Though a few people had complaints as to the content, most of the suggestions involved logistics. This suggests that we need to keep the posters up longer and work harder to make sure everyone can enjoy them.

The participation rates in programs directed at graduate and early career historians of science were relatively low, but this is to be expected of targeted programs. Of those responding, only 17% attended the First Time Attendee Reception on Thursday night and only 2% participated in the Mentorship program. Of those participating in the Reception, 67% were satisfied or very satisfied and the biggest reason for not going was scheduling conflicts. The most cited reason for not participating in the Mentorship Program was a lack of knowledge of the program’s existence and difficulty matching mentor with mentee. Both reasons suggest avenues for improvement for future meetings.

By the far the single most popular event at the 2009 HSS Annual Meeting was the Saturday evening dinner at the Heard Museum. Some 78% of respondents attended the event (a curious number since our own records showed closer to 70% attending), compared to the 16% who attended last year’s dinner. Every aspect of the event, from the quality of the food and the beverages to the length to the venue, was rated satisfactory or very unsatisfactory by 75% of attendees, a full 20 – 30 point increase over previous years. The use of a venue outside the conference hotel was something of a risk, considering the logistics of transportation and planning. However, since 92% of respondents considered the venue as satisfactory or very satisfactory the risk paid off. Likewise, 87% of respondents judged the accessibility of the event as satisfactory or above, which means that our fears of logistics were either unfounded or properly mitigated or both. Some respondents suggested we offer more vegetarian choices, lower the price of drinks, provide more seating and lighting, and expand the time the museum galleries were open for tours. Initially we heard from attendees who did not approve of the inclusion of the price of the dinner in the registration fee, but there was a noticeable decrease in these complaints after the event. However, these few complaints aside, the experiment of having the society dinner at a nearby cultural attraction was a resounding success and full credit for this success goes to the Local Arrangements Committee and the many volunteers at the museum and the light rail stations. The overwhelming approval of the event will be noted as plans for meetings in 2010 and beyond take shape.

To Attend or Not to Attend?

For the first time, the HSS surveyed members who did not attend the annual meeting to find out why they did not come and to ascertain what we might do to encourage their attendance in the future. Since we had asked attendees what obstacles they had overcome to attend, we wanted to ask those who could not make it to the conference the same question. We sent the survey link to all HSS members who did not attend and received 209 responses (ca. 10% response rate). Whether considering attendees (65%) or non-attendees (54%), costs presented the biggest obstacle to attending the annual meeting. The related issue of obtaining funding was a problem for 41% of attendees and 29% of non-attendees, and 41% of attendees and 29% of non-attendees also cited the travel time to Phoenix as a real or potential problem with attending the conference. Other obstacles, both for attendees and non-attendees, were conflicts with other meetings, difficulty covering classes, and family-care issues. 31% of non-attendees reported that they do not consider HSS to be their primary professional society and many commented that they did not find the program to be interesting or directly valuable to their work. This latter group included people who reported affiliations with museum, business, and other professionals. This seems to suggest that a small yet significant number of HSS members do not self-identify as historians of science and may possibly be professionals in other fields who are interested in our research. Another popular comment from non-attendees is the placement of the HSS meeting in the calendar, being too close to U.S. Thanksgiving or other important dates. Of those who did not come in 2009, 87% have attended 2 or fewer HSS annual meetings in the last 5 years, suggesting a sizeable portion of our members rarely come to meetings, thus challenging us to find ways to encourage their participation. More disappointingly, of the 37% of the respondents who are a student, independent scholar, or recent Ph.D., a full 57% were not aware that the HSS has NSF funded travel grants to help participants defray costs of attendance. This, too, suggests strategies to encourage participation in the future.

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