The Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) 2014 is at an end—after 4 full days of pre-conference and conference oral and poster sessions. A total of 4100 scientists, researchers, activists, and clinicians from around the world attended . . . almost half of those registered came from outside of the US. Attendees could choose among 131 15-minute oral presentations in 13 separate, typically concurrent, sessions; 55 5- to 10-minute themed discussion presentations in 16 concurrent sessions; 36 oral presentations in 9 separate symposium sessions; and 897 posters. In other words, there was substantially more material presented than any one person could hear and see, even if a full 10 hours each of 4 days was spent at the conference. And while some attendees could be seen running from session to session, most of us long ago realized that we needed to hone our own individual strategies to survive what always has the potential to be a grueling ordeal.
First, the good: CROI is the premier HIV-specific conference in the world, held annually somewhere in the United States. The quality of the material presented, whether in oral or poster format, is uniformly exceptional. Clinical science, basic science, and relevant “social science” topics all are covered thoroughly. In addition, there is ample opportunity to meet with colleagues from around the world, discuss the presented material with the presenters as well as other attendees, and “network” in a meaningful way. The conference organizers do an admirable job of limiting the number of attendees to those who are truly active in the field of HIV. So while it can be hard to get “approved” to attend the meeting, the resulting smaller size really does facilitate discussion and contributes to making it more enjoyable and less of a “grind.”
As for the bad: to begin with, it is expensive to attend. Conference fees, airfare, hotels, and meals typically average about $3000 for 4 or 5 days. Even well-funded investigators struggle with the fees, since the NIH now forbids grant dollars to be spent on non-NIH meetings. In addition to the expense, it is never easy to be away from work (clinical, teaching, or research) for a week at a time. Furthermore, attending these meetings is an inherently inefficient means of conveying and receiving information. Not only are there (typically) 4 concurrent tracks for most of the oral sessions, getting through the crowds to see a particular poster when it is scheduled to be presented, or to discuss the topic with the presenter, can be a real challenge.
Finally, one has to question whether it would be more efficient, cheaper, and more effective to miss the meeting altogether and review the information online a day or so after it is presented. Of course, conference organizers are quite sensitive to this latter issue, and many now have started to charge for online access to the slides and pdf versions of posters. At CROI 2014, for instance, even the registered attendees did not have access to the online abstracts until the conference officially started.
Finally, the ugly: the chairs in the rooms devoted to the oral sessions are so narrow, so uncomfortable, and arranged with nonexistent legroom, that even airline executives would be embarrassed. Worse, there never seems to be enough seats for the most popular sessions. Unlike the airlines, however, standing in the back, sitting on the floor, and even blocking the aisles is sometimes tolerated. Nevetheless, getting out of the seats, especially from the middle of a row before the end of a session, is akin to running an obstacle course on one of the popular television shows. Expect to kick over at least one half-filled coffee cup placed under a chair on the way out.
In a related piece, I offer some tips on getting the most out of this or the next week-long medical meeting.