Toward a More Science-Friendly APA Convention

By William C. Howell, PhD, Executive Director for Science
By some measures, the Annual APA Convention is a huge success. Certainly the number of people attending is impressive, and the program includes a wide array of interesting sessions. Even our scientific constituency, whose options now include a number of meetings more narrowly attuned to their particular interests, continue to attend in large numbers. I'm fairly confident that the total scientist and academic attendance at this year's New York convention, for example, was several times greater than it was for the first one I attended back in the mid-1950s.

Other indicators, however, tell a different story. It's no secret that the proportion of attendees representing our constituency is declining and has been for years or that the proportion of the total membership of many 'science divisions' who now attend regularly is dwindling. And although surveys reveal some surprisingly positive attitudes toward certain aspects of the convention, such as 'Science Weekend,' the frequency and intensity of complaints has been growing each year. The reasons are many and obvious, ranging from the competition presented by the more intimate specialty meetings to the cumbersome logistics of a very large one like ours.

Surveys also tell us that although many scientists and academics no longer see the APA convention as their primary professional meeting, they still care about it and attend--or consider attending--at least occasionally, and would be more inclined to do so if certain changes were made.

Without a doubt the most commonly mentioned suggestion for change has been to consolidate the programming of principal interest to scientists into a 3-day period. The idea has been kicking around for years and was once strongly endorsed by a task force appointed explicitly to look into improving the convention, but it was not implemented due primarily to resistance by certain divisions. Perhaps the time was not ripe for it.

Now it is. We've convinced the Board of Convention Affairs to give it a try on an experimental basis in 1996 (Toronto), and the Convention Office is currently working out a model of the logistics. We've gotten tentative approval from eight 'core' science divisions to participate in the trial. Provided the model is feasible and acceptable, programming for these divisions will be scheduled from Sunday through Tuesday. That will permit a Saturday arrival (for low airfares), with Sunday being the day for major APA-wide events. Some divisions with substantial science and academic membership (e.g., Division 5) have other constituencies for whom the compressed scheduling would present a problem, so they will not officially participate. They can, of course, attempt to arrange their own prorams so that more of their science sessions fall on our 'science' days.

I'm sure there will be some glitches in the new arrangement, but if it proves workable overall, it should make it much easier for the scientists to attend sessions they find attractive during a reasonable-length stay at the convention. It should ensure better attendance at the science and academic sessions and thereby help divisions strengthen their programming. A successor to our thematic Science Weekend could be designed to integrate and enhance rather than compete with the division programs. In short, if the experiment comes off as planned, we anticipate that its strengths will far outweigh any drawbacks, and you will indeed have the science and academic 'convention-within-a-convention' that so many of you have wanted for so long.

But there's one important qualification. If we're to have the option of keeping this format as a regular convention fixture, we're going to have to make sure it succeeds in 1996. It is, after all, a 1-year trial. Hence, each of us--each division, each program chair, each interested scientist, each member of my Directorate--will need to redouble our efforts to give it a fair shot. We must publicize, promote, plan, and participate so as to demonstrate conclusively that it's worthy of continuation. And we must start as soon as we know it's a 'go.' If we can't do that, the odds are that we'll be forced back into the week-long schedule, and attendance will continue to slide. If you believe as we do that science is worth preserving at the APA convention, please, join us and your colleagues in making it happen in Toronto. It's clearly our best, and could be our last, chance.

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