The American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting, the world’s largest annual gathering of physicists, has been canceled due to concerns over the rapid spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. The announcement of the decision to call off the conference in Denver came at 8:00pm MST on 29 February, just 36 hours before the first scientific sessions were scheduled to start on 2 March. The meeting typically draws about 10 000 attendees from multiple continents.
“We recognize that the timing of this decision has significantly inconvenienced many of you,” APS said in a statement on the meeting website. “However, this decision was made out of deep concern for the health and well-being of our registrants, staff, vendors, and the Denver community.”
The last-minute call shocked many attendees, even if they found it difficult to argue with the rationale. Many attendees already in Denver are organizing mini-conferences of their own, while some of those who had not yet made the trip participate in virtual forums. Going forward, the registrants, their institutions, and APS will have to sort out the financial ramifications.
APS leaders explain the decision
In a Sunday-afternoon press conference, APS chief executive officer Kate Kirby and deputy executive officer and chief operating officer James Taylor said they did not take the decision lightly. They based it on the changing information coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Johns Hopkins University, and other relevant websites they had been monitoring, as well as “an abundance of caution that we would not be the cause of spreading this disease further,” Kirby said. She pointed specifically to the CDC’s new warnings about travel to South Korea and Italy, countries from which “a number of” registrants were expected to embark to Denver.
The APS leaders shared factors that they said made the call particularly difficult. For example, Taylor said that the CDC’s advice regarding conferences is more geared toward events with mostly domestic attendees; however, about 30% of March Meeting attendees come from abroad. And a call on Saturday to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment for guidance from an epidemiologist went unreturned, Kirby said.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, at least 500 registrants had canceled from China alone, Kirby said. Another roughly 300 attendees from both the US and abroad backed out last week. Those cancellations and the resulting changes to the program meant that the meeting would not have been “as vibrant” as in past years, Kirby said, which contributed to the decision.
The feedback the society has received about its decision has been “very understanding,” said Kirby.
The society will reimburse the registration fees for all attendees, said Kirby, and it plans to reach out to federal agencies to gather waivers for graduate students and other attendees who may have used federal funds. A cancellation letter that attendees can give their institutions is available on the APS website. The meeting’s registration fees ranged from $85 for undergraduate members who signed up early to $805 for nonmembers who signed up late; early-bird registration for regular members was $495 for the week.
The society has asked the six conference-affiliated hotels to waive cancellation fees for attendees who booked via the APS-endorsed hotel provider. Some attendees who booked Airbnb accommodations and hotels not connected to the meeting say that their refund requests have been refused.
The annual meeting of the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, a partnership between APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers, went forward as planned in Denver over the weekend. However, many of those attendees were also affected because they had planned to stay for the March Meeting.
Sympathetic but frustrated
The news of the cancellation caught attendees by surprise, particularly those who had already arrived in Denver. “I found out about (the cancellation) when I was on the plane,” says MIT graduate student Amir Karamlou. “It was a reasonable thing to do, but we wish it could have been announced a little earlier.”
Olivia Lanes, a PhD student from the University of Pittsburgh, says her entire research team had arrived at the meeting. After the cancellation, her adviser suggested bringing everyone back on Sunday so they could be in the lab on Monday. It was expensive rebooking the flights. “Canceling the meeting is fine, and not canceling it probably would have been fine, but pulling the plug at the absolute last minute with thousands of travelers and many international travelers already here creates a pretty big inconvenience,” she says.
As attendees grappled with whether to change travel plans, responses from their home institutions were mixed. Some rapidly provided advice to come back early and agreed to pay outstanding fees. But over the weekend, other attendees did not expect to hear back until Monday morning.
“I will certainly be rethinking upcoming travel in the future if (for) no other reason but to avoid a circumstance like this happening again,” Lanes says. “Grad students don’t have a lot of extra money to take that chance.”
Many of those who plan to remain in Denver for the week have set up mini-conferences to meet and share their research. “We’ve arranged for some meetings, networking, and discussions about some new collaborations while we’re here,” Karamlou says. “We’re doing it on an individual basis.”
Similarly, James Furness of Tulane University in New Orleans and some colleagues decided to come to Denver anyway, since they couldn’t get refunds for their plane tickets or hotel. “Some of our collaborators were already in town,” he says. “So we’re trying to make the best of it by organizing an impromptu session for stranded folks to come and give their talks.”
Registrants who didn’t make it to Denver are taking steps to reap some benefits. Rod Van Meter of Keio University in Japan is among those who decided to go virtual by making recordings of their talks and posting them on Twitter. APS has provided information for attendees to upload their presentations and posters.
The cancellation also affected exhibitors. Quantum Machines CEO Itamar Sivan says that nine of his employees were on a flight from Israel when the cancellation was announced. Sivan decided to stay in Denver to participate in an impromptu conference, to be held in conference and hotel rooms, that was being coordinated in person and on Twitter.
Sivan says he expects the company to get all its significant costs reimbursed. “Our investment demonstrates our trust in the APS organization, and we anticipate that they will respect that trust,” he says. He envisions returning next year, as he considers the meeting the biggest and most important for quantum computing.
Kirby said that APS has already heard from other conference-organizing scientific societies interested in the criteria that went into the decision to cancel APS March. The next major event on the APS conference calendar is the April Meeting, which is scheduled for 18–21 April in Washington, DC.
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