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SfN 2021 Moves Fully Online; U-Turns on Refunds

SfN 2021 Moves Fully Online; U-Turns on Refunds					 content piece image
The conference was slated to take place at Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center. Credit: RJM
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The Society for Neuroscience’s (SfN) flagship conference, SfN 2021, has moved to an online-only offering after numerous speaker withdrawals threatened the “scientific coherence” of the event.

The conference is the field’s largest event with roughly 30,000 attendees in 2019. It was cancelled entirely in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. On March 24, SfN announced that the upcoming conference would switch to a “hybrid” model, with an in-person offering on November 13-16 paired with an earlier online program taking place November 8-11.

That course of action was dramatically altered on October 8, just four days after advance registration for the event closed. An announcement emailed to attendees cancelled the in-person event at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center, blaming the coronavirus for once again disrupting the event: “The decision to transition to a fully virtual Neuroscience 2021 experience was necessary due to the impact of the continuing spread of the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant, causing a significant number of in-person speakers to withdraw and preventing SfN from holding a major portion of its in-person programming.”

An accompanying statement from SfN president Barry Everitt expressed the society’s extreme disappointment, but initially contained no mention of a refund. A salve was offered to out-of-pocket attendees, who were promised a 50% discount on society membership in 2022.

Many reacted with anger to the statement online, noting that an “FAQ” section stated that due to the existence of a virtual option for the event, no refunds would be offered to those who booked in-person tickets. While refunds for SfN-backed housing were made available, academics online bemoaned the inflexible policy. Björn Brembs, a professor at Regensburg University in Germany, told Technology Networks that, prior to SfN’s U-turn, he intended to attend the event in-person with his postdoc (accompanied by their husband and baby) and a graduate student. “I should be able to cover all remaining costs from [my lab] budget, but it is a big hit for our small lab. As bad as that is, it is much worse for the less well-off. As a graduate student, I paid all my conferences entirely out of pocket, as my supervisor thought conferences were unnecessary. I'm sure there are many more like him,” he said. 

Others stated that SfN’s initial policy made them less likely to attend future conferences. Vernon García Rivas, a postdoc at Yale University School of Medicine, told Technology Networks, “I just recently arrived to the US as a postdoc and was looking forward to the networking/collaboration opportunities that SfN represents. I will now be putting more effort into going to conferences organized by smaller neuroscience societies closer to my research interests.”

Over the weekend, online pressure provoked a new statement from Everitt. “When we made the decision to move ahead with [the] in-person Neuroscience 2021 experience in the spring, vaccine optimism was high and the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant had not taken hold in the US. Infection rates were low, and we believed that enthusiasm for an in-person meeting would be high and that international travel bans would be lifted. We were wrong,” the October 11 statement read. “However, as announced today, if you choose not to participate in the virtual meeting, you can submit a refund request for Neuroscience 2021 registration prior to October 25 for a full refund.”

The U-turn, which both Brembs and Rivas had sought, was welcomed by some prospective attendees, but it is unclear whether abstract submission costs would also be refunded to those who chose not to attend. SfN were contacted for comment.