American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2015 in San Francisco.
Attendees of the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco stride through the hallways and talk with colleagues between scientific sessions. Credit: Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith/Gary Wagner Photography

For 5 decades, the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting has been a place where members of the Earth and space science community have come to learn more about the latest research, to make connections with potential collaborators, to reconnect with colleagues, and to advance their careers. In the past decade, attendance has grown rapidly—testament to the meeting’s value within the scientific community. In addition, Joint Assembly, the Meeting of the Americas, and meetings with partner organizations such as the Japan Geoscience Union have provided similar experiences on the international stage. Also, ground-breaking research has emerged from the more than 50 Chapman conferences AGU has hosted since 2007.

Graph of AGU Meeting attendance.
Fig. 1. After a period of rapid growth, scientific attendance at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting (orange) has increased more slowly in recent years. Among other AGU-sponsored meetings, Ocean Sciences (red) has grown modestly while the Joint Assembly (blue) has remained roughly unchanged. Credit: AGU

Today, however, growth in attendance at the Fall Meeting has begun to level out (see Figure 1), and we are increasingly hearing concerns that the meeting is too big to be useful but too important to be missed. What’s more, although other meetings in AGU’s portfolio, such as the Chapman Conferences, receive high marks for their scientific quality and attendee experience, their lack of integration with rest of the Union’s meetings program limits AGU’s ability to have a greater impact.

Changing Methods of Communication and Collaboration

Because AGU has already conducted extensive research with attendees, we know that they rely on our meetings as opportunities to network and collaborate as much as to present their research. We also know that their communications and collaboration methods are changing—and changing quickly. Whether researchers document their work on Tumblr, present via Periscope, collect data via apps, or find potential collaborators on Twitter, it’s clear that they no longer regard the poster hall, session room, and networking reception as their only (or even primary) way to advance science.

It’s clear that researchers no longer regard the poster hall, session room, and networking reception as their only (or even primary) way to advance science.

Despite these changes, AGU’s meetings program has remained largely the same. Meeting formats haven’t evolved at the same pace as people’s behavior and expectations, and our portfolio of meetings could be more effective at facilitating our attendees’ ability to advance their science and careers. This disconnect limits AGU’s potential for growth and sustainability, as well as our ability to advance the Union’s mission to “promote discovery in Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity.”

A New Vision for AGU’s Meetings Program

With these circumstances in mind, AGU undertook in 2014 a strategic review of our meetings program. Following the results of that study, President Margaret Leinen formed the Meetings Strategy Task Force to develop a vision for how AGU’s meetings program can better meet the needs of our members.

This goal likely sounds familiar, given that in recent years AGU has taken similar steps for our governance structure and publications program. In both cases, groups were formed to study the landscape in which AGU operates, to solicit feedback from stakeholder groups, and to develop short- and long-term strategies to improve the success of the program and its ability to meet the needs of the Earth and space science community.

The Meetings Strategy Task Force was convened early in 2016 and has met several times, both virtually and in person, to begin drafting the strategy to present to the AGU Board and Council for their comments in September 2016. The final strategy will go to the Board for approval in December 2016, to be followed by creation of a multifaceted implementation plan starting in early 2017.

Key Areas for Development

Already, the task force has begun to analyze the strategic review findings from 2014, as well as feedback from AGU leadership, numerous years’ worth of meeting surveys, AGU member surveys, and other data and member input. During this process, task force members have identified several keys areas for development, including supporting the growth and advancement of transdisciplinary science, facilitating the identification of rapidly emerging scientific topics, engaging attendees outside of the meeting itself, collecting and analyzing outcomes, and optimizing the meeting experience for each individual. They have also considered issues such as how AGU can enhance its connections to the public and ensure that its meetings program has a broader impact in society, how we can better integrate Earth and space science content—for instance, by linking the meetings program to AGU publications—and how we can improve networking within and among groups ranging from single- or cross-disciplinary communities to students and the established scientists who are willing to serve as their mentors.

Feedback from AGU Members and Meeting Attendees

Once the draft strategy has been written, AGU will look to its members to help envision the strategy’s implementation and how the strategy will influence the growth and transformation of AGU’s meetings portfolio.

The task force recognizes that feedback from AGU members and attendees is vitally important to the success of this effort. Although task force members have already reviewed a great deal of AGU member feedback to inform development of the draft strategy, they are aware of the importance of meetings to AGU members and will be seeking additional insight. Once the draft strategy has been written, AGU will look to its members to help envision the strategy’s implementation and how the strategy will influence the growth and transformation of AGU’s meetings portfolio. Examples of the types of questions the task force might ask at that time include the following:

  • What should change about AGU’s meetings to improve the attendee experience? Our reinvention of the meetings experience goes beyond operational issues, such as larger rooms and shorter beer lines. We want to focus on transformational ideas. Here is a taste of what we mean: Imagine poster sessions with touchscreen monitors to display animations and allow attendees to zoom in on elements of graphs, eliminating the need for printed posters and allowing for interactivity even when the presenter isn’t there.
  • What types of meetings should AGU offer to better facilitate our members’ science? Our current meetings portfolio includes the broad and very large Fall Meeting, several smaller, but still fairly broad, meetings (such as Ocean Sciences), and the much smaller and more targeted Chapman Conferences. Although that portfolio includes larger and more diverse meetings than many other science societies offer, given the changing nature of our science, does it really support the work AGU members are currently involved in? For example, would small, targeted workshops allow us to better support the kind of collaboration our attendees need?
  • Might new meeting formats, such as transdisciplinary meetings or open space meetings, increase AGU’s impact on society and emerging sciences? Could AGU be more proactive in building relationships and working with societies of engineers, public policy specialists, economists, social scientists, or practitioners of other disciplines to develop transdisciplinary meetings, such as catastrophe risk modeling? Would this enable AGU to do more to inform society? And if we embraced the concept of open space meetings—events where only the date and topic are decided in advance and the attendees work together to develop the agenda and outcomes—could we be more effective in addressing pressing needs in emerging areas of science?

Experimentation to Begin Soon

We look forward to keeping you up to date on the progress of this important effort and, when the time comes, seeking your input to help us imagine what the scientific meeting of the future will look like.

Those attending the Fall Meeting in 2016 will see our preliminary efforts to experiment with new formats and opportunities. When the meeting travels to New Orleans in 2017 and Washington, D. C., in 2018, the change of venue will give us an opportunity to experiment even more. The possibilities for AGU’s meetings program are endless, and we want our members and attendees to help us chart the future.

—Rick Murnane, Meetings Committee Chair, AGU Council Member; email:


Murnane, R. (2016), Charting the future for AGU’s meetings program, Eos, 97, Published on 03 August 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.