Should the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Cancel Their San Diego Meeting?

Update 27 October:
For those of you landing on this post via search engines, this message has now appeared on the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting site:

UPDATE: Southern California Fires & Annual Meeting
As Neuroscience 2007 approaches, SfN is monitoring the fires in the greater San Diego County area very closely and we continue to be in regular contact with area officials. While the situation is a tragedy for the affected outlying communities, we have been assured that the convention center, downtown areas, and airport remain open and are not at risk, and that Neuroscience 2007 is not expected to be significantly affected when it kicks off on November 3.
While no disruption of meeting activities or travel is anticipated, media coverage has raised questions about potential health or safety concerns. The well-being of our attendees is our highest priority. Convention and tourism authorities are expanding their range of public information to include up-to-date findings on air quality for the downtown area and other issues that would impact safety or mobility. Based on the information from local authorities, anticipated improving conditions by next week do not warrant altering plans for the Neuroscience 2007 meeting.
We encourage you to check regularly for updates about the fires, and for information about donating to or assisting with relief efforts recommended by the local authorities.

I’ll continue to keep the rest of this post live because it discusses the logistic and legal implications of canceling a large scientific conference at the last minute (the 2003 AACR meeting in Toronto) and showcases a superb article by the convention and health writer, Martha C. Collins.

Original post from 24 October:
Over at PZ Myers’ post on his upcoming attendance of a meeting in the fire-ravaged area around San Diego, commenters raised the question of whether the much larger annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience will go on as planned. Scheduled for 3-7 November, SfN is expected to draw over 30,000 participants and over 16,000 abstracts have been accepted.
The havoc of the various wildfires have strained public services and air quality is tremendously poor, a hazard to anyone with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma. The San Diego Union-Tribune is reporting that some sporting events (i.e., SDSU home football game) for this weekend are already being canceled and rescheduled.
But what to do about a major scientific conference that is 10 days off? Society for Neuroscience officials are likely examining the case of the 2003 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Toronto that was canceled only 2-3 days before it was scheduled to begin.

plaguecitycover.jpgThe circumstances of the 2003 AACR cancellation were unique: an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) led the Premier of Ontario to declare a provincial emergency two weeks before the meeting was to begin. Institutions like Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center forbid those with direct patient contact from attending; the fear was that attendees might become carriers for the SARS virus and run the risk of infecting immunosuppressed cancer patients upon returning. With hotel cancellations mounting, AACR called off the meeting of 16,000 attendees even as overseas attendees were en route to Toronto.
Fortunately, AACR had a convention cancellation insurance policy with AON via Traveler’s Insurance but Traveler’s initially refused to pay out to AACR. This information comes from a superb examination of the AACR case by freelance writer, Martha Collins, in an article she wrote for MeetingsNet. Beyond its contract with the Toronto Convention Center, AACR obligation for the $6.2 million (CDN) of hotel revenues lost by the cancellation were unclear.
As Collins wrote:

Most, but not all, of the hotel contracts had force majeure clauses. (A force majeure provision addresses the conditions under which a party may terminate an agreement without liability in case of major unforeseen events.) The clauses varied in their wording. Some allowed termination without liability based on acts or occurrences that made performance “illegal or impossible.” Some used the term “inadvisable.” And some of the clauses allowed termination only if the convention center became unavailable.

A major question in liability was whether AACR could have predicted the Ontario SARS epidemic; another complicating issue was dealing with legal aspects across the US and Canadian systems, an issue not in play with the SfN San Diego meeting:

The AACR’s position was that its obligation to hold the meeting in Toronto was discharged because of commercial impracticability. (This is the U.S. term for what’s called frustration of contract under Canadian law. It means that a party’s purpose in entering into the contract is prevented by supervening events.) In other words, the parties could not have foreseen that a deadly, communicable disease with no known cure would occur in Toronto when the convention was booked three years prior. Further, the law does not require the association to perform its obligations under the contract or pay damages if a supervening event, such as the SARS epidemic, would subject its staff and attendees to unreasonable risks.

Moving the meeting on such short notice was impractical and rescheduling for Toronto the following year was impossible since most large scientific organizations schedule their meetings three to five years in advance. Ultimately, AACR settled with a legal team representing all of the hotels for an undisclosed sum in November 2004. The annual meeting was then held in July, 2004, in the newly-completed Washington, DC, Convention Center which just happened to have an opening. AACR did have other costs remaining that were covered by a controversial $2 million subsidy from the US National Cancer Institute, as reported in The Cancer Letter.
As I noted, we are still 10 days out from the start of the San Diego SfN meeting. The San Diego economy could certainly use the boost of the SfN meeting since the fires are likely to negatively impact tourism for weeks to come. And while the fires may pose a health risk today in terms of air quality, containment of the fires and 10 more days of Santa Ana winds may improve the situation vastly. However, public resources are certainly strained and hotel, convention, and restaurant employees are personally impacted by displacement and/or loss of their own residences, a situation that will carry repercussions for far longer than 10 days.
Either way, I’m certain that SfN officials are conferring with AACR staff about their Toronto experience.
But these issues pale in comparison to issues faced by the hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians impacted by the wildfires. We send our best wishes to all in Southern California and our deepest respect for firefighters and other first responders who are putting themselves on the line to minimize the loss of life and property.
Photo credit: website of Canadian actress, Lannette New.


7 thoughts on “Should the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Cancel Their San Diego Meeting?

  1. By the time the convention rolls around, the fires will be out, the evacuated who have homes to return will be back in them and the burned out refugees will have temporary accomodations. As big as this disaster is here, there is no massive damage as happened in New Orleans, with streets, infrastructure and the majority of homes destroyed or uninhabitable. The Damage is in the back country and along the suburban interface.

  2. The homeless people might want to stay in the hotels – especially if they have important work downtown – but they probably won’t be able to afford it for long unless their insurance companies will put them up.
    I’m flying to a conference tomorrow that has been moved from its usual site in Hawaii to New Orleans, to give the city a boost. So on Saturday I’ll be working at a Habitat for Humanity site there. And staying in a fine old hotel on Canal Street. I’ve never been there before.

  3. I doubt that the fires themselves will be an issue by the time the conference starts, but like Monado said, all the hotels in downtown are currently sold-out because of people who have been forced out of their homes. It would be terrible if the addition of 35,000 people for the conference forces the people who can’t go back home out of lodging options. Hopefully, things will settle down in the next week.

  4. um, stop stirring things up for no good reason. the meeting will be fine, the convention center and airport are a LOOOOOOONG way from any fires. The last 48 hrs has seen the winds drop and the firefolks are able to do their jobs. containment is happening.
    air quality is going to suck but for goodness sakes people you’ll be in a HVAC’d convention center all day anyway. you know, filters?

  5. As BikeMonkey said, the fires did not have a significant impact on downtown. In 10 days the air quality will be greatly improved, and most of the evacuees will have returned home. The downtown hotels are not suitable for long-term stays. There have been about 1200-1500 homes lost, but those people will be scattered throughout the county (and possibly country) by that time. All told, San Diego could use the tourism income more as the city was pretty close to broke before the fires, let alone after having to pay the considerable cost of fighting them. If anything, I think we’d want more conferences like this in the immediate future.

  6. BikeMonkey and sigma147, thanks for the link (to BM) and to you both for coming over to comment. Indeed, I am well-aware of how far the hotels and convention center are from the areas affected by the wildfires. My primary point, in fact, was that SfN might care to look extremely closely at the 2003 AACR cancellation debacle before making any alternate plans or decisions.
    As an asthmatic who has been around fire affected areas, though, I would recommend that attendees monitor San Diego’s air quality website. As of this morning (Fri 26 Oct), PM2.5 counts in downtown SD are still in the ‘unhealthy to sensitive individuals’ range. BikeMonkey points out that most of the meeting time will be indoors (although walking time to the convention center should be considered) and air quality should improve dramatically by next weekend.

  7. I’m not a lawyer and I’m no tourism expert, but I think many of the owners and employees of the shops and restaurants downtown would really appreciate the economic “shot in the arm” that a conference like this can provide. Also, as most restaurants are now open normal, full hours (except those in the actual burn areas) and our major freeways fully open, I can’t see why one would want to risk the financial liability. Air quality SHOULD improve daily and if it doesn’t, the convention can hand out breathing masks. The attendees exposure to unhealthy air shouldn’t be a problem unless they have health issues of their own. Each attendee can make that decision for himself/herself.

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