SfN: Drop in numbers

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(This post originally appeared on Nature’s news blog. It’s now part of the “In the field” conference blog.)

The Dalai Lama was a big draw at last year’s conference.

There are 25,651 people at the Society for Neuroscience conference this year. Sounds like a lot. But it’s actually a solid drop from last year’s 35,000 attendees—and it shows.

The normally overflowing conference halls are emptier. The lines at the food stalls are a bit shorter. Even in the press room, there are fewer journalists banging away at their keyboards.

Why? Last November’s meeting in Washington DC “was in a different location, it was a different time of year, and the Dalai Lama was a big draw. You can’t discount that,” says Joe Carey, the society’s senior director of communications.

A whopping 14,000 people listened to the Dalai Lama, who last year inaugurated the special Science & Society series. This year’s speaker, architect Frank Gehry, attracted considerably fewer people. And Atlanta is no match for the attractions of San Diego or New Orleans, where past meetings were held.

But that’s not the whole story. Judging by the most common refrain in the hallways here, the real reason is obvious: money. The NIH pay line just dropped to an abysmal 7% and most scientists simply can’t afford to be here.

The average age for someone to win their first independent grant is now 44, prompting the society’s president to announce rather dramatically (at the press breakfast on Sunday), “If the young people don’t get the grants, all of us will get old and there’ll be no science.” Still, the 25,651 here does include a lot of young grad students and postdocs.

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