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Where the leverage is greatest

October 17, 2011

A few weeks ago I attended a smallish conference (500 participants). The sponsoring society has a “minority travel award” that they use to defray the cost for some attendees. I got to have an interesting conversation with the person who administers the award. The number of applicants is up, while the total amount of funds available has remained constant. They’ve had to much more selective than in the past, leading to conversations about what exactly they are looking for, and what the purpose of the award even is.

Consider the following hypothetical situation. Say there are two applicants and only one award left.

Applicant A: Junior Faculty at a small masters granting institution. Has little research funds. Is presenting a poster.
Applicant B: Undergraduate student at a public school. Not presenting.

Who gets the award? Applicant A has “earned it”. That person is an active researcher who will be directly contributing to the conference. Applicant B, on the other hand, may need the award more and could be relying on the award to attend the conference.

We discussed exactly this sort of scenario. I said that I’d lean more toward Applicant B. The administrator told me that the society had decided to lean towards Applicants like A, those who were relatively senior or were presenting. I understand the reasoning, but think it is a mistake. The very junior people, like undergraduates, are still deciding on science, figuring out their options. They may attend or not attend the conference based on getting or not getting the award. Old post-PhD fogies like myself are unlikely to be in that situation. We are more entrenched and have relatively more resources. Focusing the award on junior students is what’s going to bring more people to the table, and has the potential to change the demographics of the conference.

Note: Of the 500 attendees I estimate that 4 were African-American. That’s 0.8%.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2011 6:55 pm

    I would agree but at my institution students actually have much more in the way of travel resources than postdocs. At our society meeting, we saw students submit abstracts with their travel award applications, those that didn’t get them, actually retracted the abstracts and didn’t go. Probably for lack of funds.

  2. October 25, 2011 6:45 pm

    4 out of 500! wow that’s very tiny

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