Organizing a conference with more than 1,000 attendees from around the globe is no small task. Just ask Barbara Allen, associate professor and director, Science and Technology Studies, National Capital Region; and her Blacksburg colleague, Daniel Breslau, associate professor, Science and Technology Studies, who co-chaired the 2009 annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S).
For the past two and a half years, they have been organizing the recently held four-day event in the Washington, D.C., area, tending to a myriad of tasks and details.
Ellsworth "Skip" Fuhrman, professor and Science and Technology Studies department chair, submitted a competitive proposal about three years ago for Virginia Tech to host the 2009 conference in the Washington, D.C, area. This is the first time since 2005 that the meeting has been held in the United States. Last year the conference was in the Netherlands and next year it will be in Tokyo, said Allen, "so it is exciting to have it come to D.C."
In planning the meeting, Allen and Breslau were responsible for the peer review of about 950 abstracts and for communicating with all who submitted them. Breslau had the primary responsibility of organizing the accepted abstracts into 155 thematic sessions. He also organized a new "workshop session" format that the 4S Council decided to try out at this year's meeting. Based on a model used by other professional societies, the format consists of presenters and attendees seated around a table, allowing for more intimate and spontaneous discussion.
"Because of my physical proximity in the area," said Allen, who teaches at the Northern Virginia Center, Falls Church, in the National Capital Region, "it made sense for me to take the lead in location-specific decision making." Allen visited numerous sites in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area before selecting and negotiating a contract with the Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel in Alexandria, Va. This is also the first time, said Allen, that the 4S annual meeting has been housed in a major conference hotel.
While the 4S assigned a member to coordinate catering, audio/visual needs, student volunteers, and book exhibits at the meeting, Allen served as a coordinator between all of these various groups and the hotel's conference staff. She also organized a number of lunch sessions during the conference, featuring speakers from non-governmental organizations. She invited policy experts and guests from both U.S. and foreign funding agencies to participate in the meeting, as well. This was all possible because of the conference location in the Washington, D.C., area, Allen said.
In addition to her responsibilities as co-chair, Allen presented a paper, "The Lower 9th Ward as a 'Laboratory Study' in Sustainability," during the conference.
The 2009 meeting was the 34th for the 4S, the oldest and largest scholarly association devoted to understanding science and technology in society. It exists to facilitate communication across conventional boundaries that separate the disciplines and across national boundaries that separate scholars.
4S includes scholars in sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, political science, economics, and psychology; areas of study that fall outside of the traditional academic disciplines such as feminist studies and cultural studies, as well as those addressing science and technology for the public; studies of knowledge, policy, research and development, the development and use of specific technologies; working scientists and engineers interested in the social aspects of their fields, and members of the public who have an interest in the way that science and technology affect their lives.
"The majority of attendees at the conference were from Europe, Asia, and Latin America, which is not unusual since Science and Technology Studies emerged in Europe in the 1960s and 70s” said Breslau.
The four-day conference ended on a light note. Since it was Halloween, Allen and Breslau planned a Zombie Ball. "We thought an evening of fun was in order and it was a good opportunity to introduce our international colleagues to a typically American holiday," said Allen.