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Andrew Black: Lining up the ‘Moving Parts’ of the AAAS Annual Meeting

Andrew Black

Ready for Austin?

This year’s AAAS Annual Meeting convenes February 15 in the Texas capital, famous for its beats and bats and barbecue. About 10,000 people are expected to attend at least some portion of the conference, which features four days of lectures, workshops, and special events.

Spearheading the planning for that event is Andrew Black, the AAAS Chief of Staff. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, Black has been handling those duties while on paternity leave following the birth of his second daughter—“a minor detail,” he jokingly said. 

Black spoke recently with MemberCentral about his hopes for the Austin gathering and a bit about what those 10,000 can expect to see and hear from the event.

Why Austin?

At the time we contracted the meeting, Austin was still sort of entering the scene as a very attractive place for conventions and meetings. That has only solidified in the seven years that have passed since. It’s a really attractive destination in terms of live music and other cultural things, but for us what attracted us is the really booming science and technology industries, both academic and private industry. UT-Austin is one of the world’s premier research institutions. We’re doing a lot in partnership with them, and it’s been a really great and fruitful partnership. But there’s also a lot of private industry going on. And the community is also really involved and contributing a lot to innovation. We’re really excited about the local flavor we can bring to our meeting with all that’s going on around Austin.

How many people do you expect?

Overall, we expect about 10,000 people. Many of those are members of the public who attend Family Science Days, which is our free, public science outreach event. It’s geared toward K-12 students and their families. There’s a lot of interactive, hands-on stuff for kids to really come and experience all the cool and exciting things that are happening in various branches of science, everything from planting a seed and taking it home to watch it grow to some cool interactive stuff with NASA. There’s something for everyone in that.

And then there are our more traditional attendees, who come for our science and policy content. And this is also the only time when all of our AAAS elected leadership—from our board of directors, to our council, to our section leaders—are together in one place. So, in addition to all of the public-facing things that are happening, there’s also a whole separate series of meetings going on to conduct the affairs of the association from a governance perspective. There are definitely a lot of moving parts.

How is the program different than it’s been in the past couple of years?

What’s unique this year is we’ve really engaged our local committee. That’s a group of scientists and policymakers and industry leaders and administrators who are from Austin. We have about two dozen folks on the local committee who are really helping connect the content and the experience of the meeting to the Austin community … and so [a] lot of the programming that you’ll see in this year’s meeting has a lot more emphasis on the city that’s hosting us.

We’re really trying to make this meeting more interactive—interactive between attendees, interactive between attendees and content and attendees and presenters, and interactive between attendees and the broader world. For the first time, we’ll be crowdsourcing room assignments for scientific symposia. One of the features of our Annual Meeting app, which is now available for download, is the ability to poll attendees on the sessions they’re interested in and, based on that feedback, we’ll be able to assign rooms for those sessions accordingly. [The deadline for this was January 15.]  We frequently get feedback from attendees that a particular session room was standing room only or that a room was way too big. Hopefully, we’ll be able to fine-tune that in a really fun and interactive way.

We have a podcast stage on the exhibit hall. We’ll invite podcasters to come and broadcast live from the meeting. They’ll be speaking with presenters and other attendees live in the exhibit hall throughout the weekend.

And one of the things I’m really excited about: Our members have been seeing a lot about our Force for Science initiative over the past year. We wanted to find a way to bring all that Force for Science activity to life. People have been reading about it online, on MemberCentral, on Trellis and on the website, and I was trying to come up with a way we could bring that to life. What we’ve done is assembled a lot of that content into presentations that are delivered by AAAS staff from across different departments, and that will sort of be on a loop in the exhibit hall in what we’re calling the Force for Science live tool kit. Our friends at Bristol-Myers Squibb have generously underwritten that effort. 

It’s been a busy year not only in science, but in the science policy field. How does the conference reflect that?

What is unique about the AAAS meeting is that there’s an undercurrent of policy in everything we present. It all ties back to how is this applicable in society, whether that’s in policymaking or debates about scientific issues, ethics and human rights, and how science touches all of these areas. That’s what people come to the AAAS meeting to learn more about and discuss. Certainly, I think the energy at the AAAS meeting has greatly increased over the past couple of years. I think anyone who attended the 2017 meeting in Boston noticed a palpable increase in energy and enthusiasm for what the AAAS meeting tries to do, and its goals since the new administration took office, and I expect that will certainly be the case in 2018 and beyond. I think people are really interested in being engaged in these sorts of topics, and the AAAS meeting is a natural place for that type of dialogue to take place.

You mentioned the meeting app. What are some other ways you’re using technology to get the word out about what’s happening in Austin?

The @AAASmeetings Twitter account is really the best place. We have a great social media team—actually, a one-woman team—who is constantly engaging with our participants and our attendees. We’ve invested a lot of resources into really building out the app to be a helpful and interactive tool. Not only can you get all of the nuts and bolts of attending the meeting—sessions, schedules, and other things like that—but it’s also interactive. You can interact with people through social media platforms through the app. We’re really encouraging people to download the app and use it to its fullest potential and give us feedback. I think people will be pleasantly surprised at how easy the app is to use and how seamless it will make their experience at the meeting.

If there’s one big thing you’d want people to take from this year’s conference, what would it be?

This year, [AAAS President] Susan Hockfield has introduced a unique theme for the meeting: “Advancing Science: Discovery to Application.” What Susan is really trying to do is use the meeting to bridge the gap between academia, industry, and policy, and to get people in all three of those camps to realize the best way to advance the scientific enterprise is to work together. Often there’s a really significant gap between each of these communities, but we are all working toward the same goal here.

What Susan is doing by focusing on this is making sure the best possible outcomes come through collaboration and partnership between these three communities, and a lot of sessions will have that theme running through them. We’re really excited to see what kind of progress can be made in those areas.