Tulane professor protests neuroscience society’s decision to stop meeting in New Orleans

Jeffrey Tasker, director of the Graduate Neuroscience Program and Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at Tulane University, started a petition and letter-writing campaign to protest the Society of Neuroscience's decision to remove New Orleans from their rotation of annual meetings that brings around 30,000 people to the city every three years.
Jeffrey Tasker, director of the Graduate Neuroscience Program and Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology at Tulane University, started a petition and letter-writing campaign to protest the Society of Neuroscience's decision to remove New Orleans from their rotation of annual meetings that brings around 30,000 people to the city every three years.

It was understandable that the Council of the Society for Neuroscience canceled its 2006 meeting in New Orleans, said Jeffrey Tasker, director of the neuroscience program at Tulane University.

But Tasker said he disagreed with the decision to cancel the 2009 meeting and the most recent decision to take New Orleans out of the rotation entirely.

The Society for Neuroscience meeting, held possibly for the last time in New Orleans in 2012, typically draws more than 30,000 attendees from 75 countries.

According to the standard calculation used by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, 30,000 delegates translates into an economic impact of more than $35 million.

After the November 2012 meeting, the council announced that the event is “at unacceptably high risk in New Orleans.” The risk was “highlighted by damage experienced by contracted hotels following Hurricane Isaac.”

A letter to the council signed by Tasker, Nicolas Bazan, director of the Neuroscience Center of Excellence for the LSU Health Sciences Center, and Christian Sheline, president of the Greater New Orleans Chapter of the Society of Neuroscience, states the 2006 and 2009 decisions “showed an insensitivity to the challenges facing New Orleans following the largest natural and man-made disaster in the history of the country.”

The decision, announced in December, “fails to take into consideration the economic, social, and scientific impact of such a decision on the city and its neuroscience community as it continues in its difficult course of recovery, or the fact that New Orleans is one of the more popular destination cities for the annual meeting.”

The letter also takes the society to task for making the decision without input from the members and “circumventing any semblance of democratic process.”

According to the council, the decision was not unanimous and was “difficult to make, but was predicated on the potential difficulties of reliably executing the SfN meeting in New Orleans.” Chicago will replace New Orleans in the three-city rotation including San Diego and Washington D.C.

Kelly Schulz, vice president of public relations and communications for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that meeting planners take a number of things into account, such as weather, affordability and flights in and out.

She noted that natural events have to be taken into account across the country — whether looking at hurricanes and blizzards on the East Coast or earthquakes on the West Coast.

But each year following Katrina, Schulz said more and more meetings and conventions are returning, and the numbers of visitors are steadily going up. In 2004, there were 1,299 meetings with 1.25 million attendees. In 2006, there were 360 meetings with 428,992 people. In 2012, there were 846 meetings with just over 1 million people.

“More groups have returned than those who haven’t,” Schulz said.

New Orleans has strong appeal for a variety of reasons, Schulz said, particularly the compactness and walkability between venues including the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the New Orleans Arena, the Mercedez-Benz Superdome and the French Quarter, hotels, and restaurants.

Associations don’t have to spend money transporting their members from hotels to meetings, she said. Schulz said the growing bio-medical community will likely make the city more appealing to medical groups.

And of course there is the one-of-a-kind culture that entices people to extend their stays into vacations and bring their children and spouses along, she said.

“Sometimes cities blend together,” Schulz said. “But in New Orleans — you know you’re in a really different place.”

When more people attend, it also benefits the associations, Schulz noted, as they often raise a significant portion of their revenue at their annual meetings.

Schulz said a recent “Bring Your Meeting Home” campaign has been successful in getting local professionals to reach out to their peers across the country and world.

So far Tasker said he’s collected close to 1,000 signatures and close to 300 people have written letters.

Besides being a favorite destination, Tasker said that New Orleans has more than proven its capacity to host major events, and the society never actually had to cancel a meeting — it is making the decision solely on the chance of cancellation.

In addition to the economic impact to the city, Tasker said the meeting is a valuable learning opportunity for LSU and Tulane students.

On March 1, acknowledging protest from some members, Society of Neurologists President Larry Swanson posted a statement on its website that he understood not all members would be happy with the decision but that costs and benefits were carefully weighed and the decision would not change.

“While all of us on the Council share appreciation for many of New Orleans’ attributes, we firmly believe that the decision we made is in the overall best interests of the Society given the critical importance of successfully having the meeting each year to promote scientific exchange in the neuroscience field,” Swanson wrote.

Tasker said he would continue to defend the best interests of the city and the local neuroscience community. “I couldn’t let it go without fighting,” he said.