Update 27 October:
For those of you landing on this post via search engines, this message has now appeared on the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting site:
UPDATE: Southern California Fires & Annual Meeting
As Neuroscience 2007 approaches, SfN is monitoring the fires in the greater San Diego County area very closely and we continue to be in regular contact with area officials. While the situation is a tragedy for the affected outlying communities, we have been assured that the convention center, downtown areas, and airport remain open and are not at risk, and that Neuroscience 2007 is not expected to be significantly affected when it kicks off on November 3.
While no disruption of meeting activities or travel is anticipated, media coverage has raised questions about potential health or safety concerns. The well-being of our attendees is our highest priority. Convention and tourism authorities are expanding their range of public information to include up-to-date findings on air quality for the downtown area and other issues that would impact safety or mobility. Based on the information from local authorities, anticipated improving conditions by next week do not warrant altering plans for the Neuroscience 2007 meeting.
We encourage you to check www.visitsandiego.com regularly for updates about the fires, and for information about donating to or assisting with relief efforts recommended by the local authorities.
I’ll continue to keep the rest of this post live because it discusses the logistic and legal implications of canceling a large scientific conference at the last minute (the 2003 AACR meeting in Toronto) and showcases a superb article by the convention and health writer, Martha C. Collins.
Original post from 24 October:
Over at PZ Myers’ post on his upcoming attendance of a meeting in the fire-ravaged area around San Diego, commenters raised the question of whether the much larger annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience will go on as planned. Scheduled for 3-7 November, SfN is expected to draw over 30,000 participants and over 16,000 abstracts have been accepted.
The havoc of the various wildfires have strained public services and air quality is tremendously poor, a hazard to anyone with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma. The San Diego Union-Tribune is reporting that some sporting events (i.e., SDSU home football game) for this weekend are already being canceled and rescheduled.
But what to do about a major scientific conference that is 10 days off? Society for Neuroscience officials are likely examining the case of the 2003 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Toronto that was canceled only 2-3 days before it was scheduled to begin.
The circumstances of the 2003 AACR cancellation were unique: an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) led the Premier of Ontario to declare a provincial emergency two weeks before the meeting was to begin. Institutions like Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center forbid those with direct patient contact from attending; the fear was that attendees might become carriers for the SARS virus and run the risk of infecting immunosuppressed cancer patients upon returning. With hotel cancellations mounting, AACR called off the meeting of 16,000 attendees even as overseas attendees were en route to Toronto.
Fortunately, AACR had a convention cancellation insurance policy with AON via Traveler’s Insurance but Traveler’s initially refused to pay out to AACR. This information comes from a superb examination of the AACR case by freelance writer, Martha Collins, in an article she wrote for MeetingsNet. Beyond its contract with the Toronto Convention Center, AACR obligation for the $6.2 million (CDN) of hotel revenues lost by the cancellation were unclear.
As Collins wrote:
Most, but not all, of the hotel contracts had force majeure clauses. (A force majeure provision addresses the conditions under which a party may terminate an agreement without liability in case of major unforeseen events.) The clauses varied in their wording. Some allowed termination without liability based on acts or occurrences that made performance “illegal or impossible.” Some used the term “inadvisable.” And some of the clauses allowed termination only if the convention center became unavailable.
A major question in liability was whether AACR could have predicted the Ontario SARS epidemic; another complicating issue was dealing with legal aspects across the US and Canadian systems, an issue not in play with the SfN San Diego meeting:
The AACR’s position was that its obligation to hold the meeting in Toronto was discharged because of commercial impracticability. (This is the U.S. term for what’s called frustration of contract under Canadian law. It means that a party’s purpose in entering into the contract is prevented by supervening events.) In other words, the parties could not have foreseen that a deadly, communicable disease with no known cure would occur in Toronto when the convention was booked three years prior. Further, the law does not require the association to perform its obligations under the contract or pay damages if a supervening event, such as the SARS epidemic, would subject its staff and attendees to unreasonable risks.
Moving the meeting on such short notice was impractical and rescheduling for Toronto the following year was impossible since most large scientific organizations schedule their meetings three to five years in advance. Ultimately, AACR settled with a legal team representing all of the hotels for an undisclosed sum in November 2004. The annual meeting was then held in July, 2004, in the newly-completed Washington, DC, Convention Center which just happened to have an opening. AACR did have other costs remaining that were covered by a controversial $2 million subsidy from the US National Cancer Institute, as reported in The Cancer Letter.
As I noted, we are still 10 days out from the start of the San Diego SfN meeting. The San Diego economy could certainly use the boost of the SfN meeting since the fires are likely to negatively impact tourism for weeks to come. And while the fires may pose a health risk today in terms of air quality, containment of the fires and 10 more days of Santa Ana winds may improve the situation vastly. However, public resources are certainly strained and hotel, convention, and restaurant employees are personally impacted by displacement and/or loss of their own residences, a situation that will carry repercussions for far longer than 10 days.
Either way, I’m certain that SfN officials are conferring with AACR staff about their Toronto experience.
But these issues pale in comparison to issues faced by the hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians impacted by the wildfires. We send our best wishes to all in Southern California and our deepest respect for firefighters and other first responders who are putting themselves on the line to minimize the loss of life and property.
Photo credit: website of Canadian actress, Lannette New.