We're a little crazy, about science!

Conferences in a pandemic

I’m vaccinated, I got vaccinated back before most of the public could because I work and do research at a hospital. Because I work with a vulnerable population, some of whom cannot be vaccinated, I still take the pandemic very seriously. I wear my mask like I wear any other piece of clothing and the hospital understands this risk because unlike schools and other places in the area, masks are still mandatory. It’s not just a vaccination issue, it’s that vaccines are 100% effective and not everyone can be vaccinated or has access to get vaccinated. So when my favorite conference came around, I was torn about attending… was.

Society for Neuroscience (SfN) hosts one of the largest and most comprehensive conferences in the field. It’s probably my favorite and is a mix of fun science sharing and science based party. Last year the event was cancelled due to the pandemic, a choice that surprised me because SfN makes obscene amounts of money from the event, but made me happy that people were put before profit. There are hundreds of vendors selling things, each paying a fee to have a booth. Then there’s the money brought in by the fees from tens of thousands of attendees (anywhere from 25-40,000 people attend SfN in a given year).

I was anxiously waiting to see if the event would be occurring this year, which it is, and more importantly I was debating about if I should attend or not. Masks or not, crowds during a pandemic are still a no-no. Like most people I’m burnt out of this pandemic and would be happy to socialize at conferences. I would gladly wear a mask for the rest of my life if I could safely be around people talking science again, but at the same time there was a tugging.

My responsibility to the people I work with was constantly reminding me that this would be a gamble at best. I’m a war veteran, I cannot be responsible for more death. Even if it were accidental it would destroy me. So I take the pandemic seriously and I take my role in not being another link in the chain very seriously. I got vaccinated the second I could (read about it here and here) and I still wear a mask every day I’m at work, I’m at the store, and when I’m out doing my needed routines. Effectively removing myself from the chain before I become a link has the potential to save hundreds and we all should keep that in mind (I wrote about the math here, it’s horrifying).

Still SfN is a chance for me, as a early career researcher, to connect with others. It gives me a chance to get my name out there, make what I like to call conference friends (friends I only see at conferences) and is a way to show off my science. I absolutely love in-person conferences, so I tried very hard to rationalize the possibility of attending. Of course (and somewhat thankfully) the choice was made for me by SfN organizers. The hard line for me to even think about attendance was that masks were mandatory. Masks are one of our best first line defenses against spreading the virus and help keep everyone safe, even if we’re not in a huge crowded conference so I wanted to see what the policy was on masks. Nothing came up when I searched the specific combination, SfN and masks, so I took a different route and found the FAQ page which is how the decision was made for me. It said this:

Roughly translated they don’t care. They are passing the responsibility onto the people and as we’ve seen that does not work. To say I’m angry is an understatement. Not only does this keep me from even considering attending, it makes it impossible for people with autoimmune diseases to attend in-person and it turns the whole event from a fun science gathering into a super spreader event. It’s SfN’s conference, it’s their responsibility to keep the attendees safe and frankly they will be responsible for the people who die because of this stupidity, greed, and ignorance.

Yes, at the end of the day the organizers care more about the money they will bring in than the people in attendance. SfN organizers are not friends, they are business people who will value the dollar cost over the cost of a life because killing someone is scary cheap. So this is an attempt to maximize profit while trying to suggest they can’t do more.

I’m angry at the organizers for allowing this, I’m angry at the community for not doing more to stop it, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m angry at myself for thinking I could rationalize attending the conference and that I would be safe. The people who I work with deserve better of me. I will not be another link in the chain, no matter how indifferent SfN is to the suffering and death that this will cause. Because make no mistake this will cause a large amount of both and while we could track it and show this, I don’t have the heart to do something like that, so either take me at my word or a few weeks after the conference just take a look at the numbers.

I’m sad that things are slowly shifting back to “normal” while the death count is steadily increasing again. I feel like I’m going crazy, no one else (in the general sense) seems to care anymore. I know we’re all tired of this, but it won’t get better if we can’t work together and stop it from spreading. Yes, there is a lot of personal responsibility there, but the government should be enforcing this and making it mandatory to be responsible.

I’m sad that I’m not going to attend SfN, but I’m more sad that we as a country, as a world, can ignore the amount of suffering and death that is still ongoing because we’re all tired of doing something about it.

Sorry conference friends, maybe next year.


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