Three clones and a bit of culinary chemistry gave a kick to last year's AAAS conference - as did the 3,300 parents and children who turned up. Stephen Phillips reports on a unique gathering
They say never work with children or animals, but no one reminded the American Association for the Advancement of Science when it threw a family science day at its annual conference last year and invited three cloned mules.
The spectacle of livestock munching on hay bales in a Seattle hotel was a little incongruous. But the animals were a hit with the 3,300 parents and children who attended, though they caused a few anxious moments for the conference organisers.
"My thoughts went immediately to the logistics of getting the mules into the hall," recalls Leslie Warrick, meetings manager of the AAAS, an international, multidisciplinary society that publishes the leading research journal Science.
She needn't have worried. They were chaperoned by the chief of police from Moscow, Idaho, seat of the University of Idaho, the animals' home.
In a novelty of another kind, South Korean researchers chose the Seattle convention to showcase their extraction of embryonic stem cells - considered to hold great promise for the development of treatments for diabetes, cancer and other chronic illnesses - from a cloned human embryo.
The therapeutic cloning breakthrough was announced before 130 journalists, with TV cameras beaming the action live to millions of viewers.
"It was history in the making," recalls Ginger Pinholster, AAAS director of public programmes.
The association's annual meeting is perhaps the only event in the world where you'll find cutting-edge science under the same roof as children making ice-cream from liquid hydrogen - another highlight of the 2004 family days.
The five-day summit, which was first convened in 1848, is held every February. It ranks among the world's most important academic conferences.
But in contrast to its beginnings as a traditional scientific meeting, it now embraces the public communication of science agenda, welcoming school pupils and the media as well as top scientists.
Last year was the first time public outreach extended to opening its doors to the general public. The two family science days were a runaway success and have been adopted as a permanent fixture.
The conference's reach is matched by the eclectic diversity of its delegates, from anthropologists through zoologists to physicists.
"It's the Olympics of science conferences," Pinholster says. It has attracted speakers such as Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, software tycoon Bill Gates and even George Bush senior and Bill Clinton when they were US presidents.
The demands of organising such a huge conference - there are roughly 10,000 delegates to cater for, 30 to 40 press briefings to juggle and a $500,000-plus budget to handle - is no easy task. Planning for each annual meeting begins 18 to 20 months before and host sites are selected five to seven years in advance.
A cadre of four dedicated AAAS staffers works full time on planning, with a supporting cast of up to 40 pulled in at various junctures to perform specific functions.
About 18 months in advance, Jill Perla, the conference lead organiser, senior manager, marketing and meetings operations, sits down with the association's president, academic officers and the editors of Science to hammer out an overarching theme.
Usually the aim is to tap into the Zeitgeist , but they may also take their cue from the interests of that year's president (a working research scientist) and the host city.
The theme sets the tone for keynote addresses and offers an organising principle for presentations, but organisers try not to be too prescriptive, Perla says.
"We don't want to box people in too much," she explains, adding that things remain fairly fluid early on, with staff regularly brainstorming to refine the theme.
When a provisional theme has been pinned down, staff frame a request for proposals that is posted on listservers, internet news groups and in Science .
About 350 proposals are typically fielded for each conference on a special website and, by June or July the following year, staff are ready to whittle these down. Just half make the cut.
The timetable begins to take shape as organisers get an idea of subject areas into which they can arrange presentations.
Most work is handled in-house - AAAS staff produce the glossy conference brochures, for instance. But functions such as catering and designing stage sets are farmed out to a bevy of subcontractors who spring into action as crunch time approaches.
This year the conference was held in Washington. Its title was The Nexus: Where Science meets Society , and family science days offered explorations of rainforests, outer space and the human brain. But the big dilemma for organisers was how to top the cloned mules.
Farzana Bhatti intends to leave academic research after she completes her pharmacology PhD at Robinson College, Cambridge. Bhatti, 26, hopes to pursue a career in promoting science to the public, but she says she will remember the academic conference circuit fondly.
"Conferences are great social events for scientists - you only have to look at some of the locations. My supervisor is attending a conference in the Lake District shortly, and I am going to one in California. But there is definitely more to conferences than meeting up with friends.
"In my opinion, the larger conferences are better because there is more science to choose from and they often attract leading scientists. They also provide me, as a young scientist, with a greater opportunity to network, and there are often events, such as careers sessions, to help students.
"I do not enjoy conferences that last for one day, where too many talks have been crammed in. It is difficult to keep your concentration."