Status Report

American Physical Society Cancels March Meeting Due to Coronavirus Concerns

By SpaceRef Editor
March 3, 2020
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The American Physical Society March Meeting, the world’s largest annual gathering of physicists, has been canceled due to concerns over the rapid spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus. The announcement of the decision to call off the conference in Denver came at 8:00 pm MST on Feb. 29, just 36 hours before the first scientific sessions were scheduled to start on March 2. The meeting typically draws about 10,000 attendees from multiple continents.


“We recognize that the timing of this decision has significantly inconvenienced many of you,” APS said in a statement on the meeting website. “However, this decision was made out of deep concern for the health and well-being of our registrants, staff, vendors, and the Denver community.”


The last-minute call shocked many attendees, even if they found it difficult to argue with the rationale. Many attendees already in Denver are organizing mini-conferences of their own, while some of those who had not yet made the trip participate in virtual forums. Going forward, the registrants, their institutions, and APS will have to sort out the financial ramifications.


APS leaders explain the decision


In a Sunday afternoon press conference, APS CEO Kate Kirby and deputy executive officer and chief operating officer James Taylor said they did not take the decision lightly. They based it on the changing information coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins University, and other relevant websites they had been monitoring, as well as “an abundance of caution that we would not be the cause of spreading this disease further,” Kirby said. She pointed specifically to the CDC’s new warnings about travel to South Korea and Italy, countries from which “a number of” registrants were expected to embark to Denver.


The APS leaders shared factors that they said made the call particularly difficult. For example, Taylor said CDC’s advice regarding conferences is more geared toward events with mostly domestic attendees; however, about 30% of March Meeting attendees come from abroad. And a call on Saturday to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment for guidance from an epidemiologist went unreturned, Kirby said.


Kirby further observed that in the weeks leading up to the meeting, at least 500 registrants had canceled from China alone and another roughly 300 attendees from both the U.S. and abroad backed out last week. She said those cancellations and the resulting changes to the program meant that the meeting would not have been “as vibrant” as in past years, which also contributed to the decision.


The feedback the society has received about its decision has been “very understanding,” Kirby reported.


She said APS will reimburse the registration fees for all attendees, and it plans to reach out to federal agencies to gather waivers for graduate students and other attendees who may have used federal funds. A cancellation letter that attendees can give their institutions is available on the APS website. The meeting’s registration fees ranged from $85 for undergraduate members who signed up early to $805 for nonmembers who signed up late; early-bird registration for regular members was $495 for the week.   


The society has asked the six conference-affiliated hotels to waive cancellation fees for attendees who booked via the APS-endorsed hotel provider. Some attendees who booked Airbnb accommodations and hotels not connected to the meeting say that their refund requests have been refused.


“We appreciate the high cost of our decision, both for the APS and also the attendees,” Kirby and APS President Phil Bucksbaum wrote in an email to society members on Monday. “Our society is strong financially, and we can absorb this financial loss. The welfare of our community is certainly a greater concern. We are engaging funding agencies and the conference hotels to help our attendees avoid as much as possible any unreimbursed cancellation fees that they might incur.”


Sympathetic but frustrated


The news of the cancellation caught attendees by surprise, particularly those who had already arrived in Denver. “I found out about [the cancellation] when I was on the plane,” MIT graduate student Amir Karamlou told Physics Today. “It was a reasonable thing to do, but we wish it could have been announced a little earlier.”


Olivia Lanes, a PhD student from the University of Pittsburgh, said her entire research team had arrived at the meeting. After the cancellation, her adviser suggested bringing everyone back on Sunday so they could be in the lab on Monday. It was expensive to rebook the flights. “Canceling the meeting is fine, and not canceling it probably would have been fine, but pulling the plug at the absolute last minute with thousands of travelers and many international travelers already here creates a pretty big inconvenience,” she said.


As attendees grappled with whether to change travel plans, responses from their home institutions were mixed. Some rapidly provided advice to come back early and agreed to pay outstanding fees. But over the weekend, other attendees did not expect to hear back until Monday morning.


“I will certainly be rethinking upcoming travel in the future if [for] no other reason but to avoid a circumstance like this happening again,” Lanes said. “Grad students don’t have a lot of extra money to take that chance.”


Many of those who plan to remain in Denver for the week have set up mini-conferences to meet and share their research. “We’ve arranged for some meetings, networking, and discussions about some new collaborations while we’re here,” Karamlou said. “We’re doing it on an individual basis.”


Similarly, James Furness of Tulane University in New Orleans and some of his colleagues decided to come to Denver anyway, since they couldn’t get refunds for their plane tickets or hotel. “Some of our collaborators were already in town,” he explained. “So we’re trying to make the best of it by organizing an impromptu session for stranded folks to come and give their talks.”


Registrants who didn’t make it to Denver are taking steps to reap some benefits. Rod Van Meter of Keio University in Japan is among those who decided to go virtual by making recordings of their talks and posting them on Twitter. APS has provided information for attendees who want to upload their presentations and posters.


The cancellation also affected exhibitors. Quantum Machines CEO Itamar Sivan said that nine of his employees were on a flight from Israel when the cancellation was announced. Sivan decided to stay in Denver to participate in an impromptu conference that was being coordinated in person and on Twitter.

Sivan said he expects the company to get all its significant costs reimbursed, remarking, “Our investment demonstrates our trust in the APS organization, and we anticipate that they will respect that trust.” He envisions returning next year, saying he considers the meeting to be the biggest and most important for quantum computing.

Kirby said that APS has already heard from other conference-organizing scientific societies interested in the criteria that went into the decision to cancel APS March. The next major event on the APS conference calendar is the April Meeting, which is scheduled for April 18 to 21 in Washington, D.C.

This article is adapted from a March 3 post by Physics Today, which is also published by the American Institute of Physics.


Contact the Author

Paul Guinnessy

Physics Today

(301) 209-3035

SpaceRef staff editor.