Better safe than sorry

March 23, 2007

Heightened security fears mean organisers must consider the impact of visa conditions, immigration policies and personal risks of travel on attendance. Olga Wojtas investigates

Last August, the Sharif University of Technology, a leading engineering university in Iran, organised a reunion for graduates and staff in Los Angeles. Most of the 600 scientists and engineers lived in the US, but a number were travelling from Iran. Dozens never made it when their legally obtained 15-day visitor visas were revoked as they tried to enter the US.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, some were told the visas were being revoked under legislation barring visas for nationals of countries regarded as "state sponsors of terrorism", unless the individual was not considered a threat to America's national security. Additionally, several Iranian scientists were told by US officials that they could either volunteer to return home or be subject to deportation and restrictions on return visits.

The Latin American Studies Association has voted overwhelmingly to relocate its international congress this coming September from Boston to Montreal after Cuban scholars were denied visas to a previous congress. The US State Department told the American Association of University Teachers that it could not discuss individual cases, but that they had been refused entry on the grounds that this "would be detrimental to the interests of the United States".

There are reports that an increasing number of American academic institutions and organisations are holding their conferences abroad to minimise visa difficulties for international academics.

But Wendy White, director of the Board on International Scientific Organisations at the National Academy of Sciences, says visa restrictions are easing.

The problem may be one of perception. "We surmise that when organisations get together to decide where they might hold their next meeting, the US may not be a contender because of fear of visa problems," she says. "While there are still problems with visas, the overall situation is much improved, and the scientific community is fairly confident that government officials have listened to our concerns and taken steps to improve the situation."

White adds that the US visa system is very transparent and issues statistics on visa denials, which most other countries don't do; this means that it is difficult to make comparisons with other countries. And a coalition has recently been set up to campaign for reforms in the requirements to make it easier for foreign academics to enter the US.

So far, the UK has not seen such difficulties with academic visas for conferences. However, while the standard advice for international academics is to have a letter of invitation, and possibly supporting evidence from the society or organisation hosting the conference, there was widespread concern last autumn when five Moroccan postgraduates were denied entry to the UK. They were due to attend an international workshop at the Open University and were fully sponsored by the OU.

Suman Gupta, director of the OU's Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies, claimed that academic research was being damaged by the Government's fear of terrorism and illegal immigration.

Universities UK is watching all the developments closely. A spokesperson said: "We are concerned about the dearth of information about the position of international academic visitors and sponsored researchers within the new system. If the new system does not accommodate these important groups, the UK higher education system will suffer."

The growing concern about terrorism has also had an impact on higher education courses. When Westminster University was getting a new masters course in conference management validated three years ago, Tony Rogers, executive director of the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers, warned that it must include crisis and disaster management.

"It's a whole element of our masters course, preparing the students to anticipate and deal with these things," says Rob Davidson, a senior lecturer on the course. "Human life always has to come first; and if there's any kind of attack the planner immediately has to get people out of there, and delegates have to leave everything behind, including their beloved laptops."

Academics generally tack holidays on to conferences abroad, says Davidson, but they should be aware that the university's standard insurance will cover them only for the conference. Anyone attending an event in a country where there could be security issues should contact the university's insurance manager before they leave, he urges.

Academic colleagues who went to Nigeria under a previous regime were insured against kidnap and ransom demands.

Destinations that are known trouble spots should obviously be avoided as venues for conferences, Davidson says, "but these things can change in the time it takes to organise an event".

Many small bits make a big success

Dividing large events into discussion groups and looking after the little things can ensure a hit

Roger Butlin has experienced some embarrassing moments as a conference organiser. At the 2003 meeting of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology in Leeds there was a spot of bother with keynote speaker Lord Robert May, at that time the president of the Royal Society.

"The security people refused him admission to the university until he had paid his parking fee. Fortunately, the vice-chancellor coped with his moans before he got to me. Then his hotel tried to charge him (instead of us) for his stay. He was quite amused, but it was embarrassing."

Butlin, now professor of evolutionary biology at Sheffield University, says it shows how communication can break down when you have to delegate responsibilities in big conferences - in this case one for 800 delegates.

His advice for making big conferences go well is simple: "Make them feel small."

The ESEB conference is, for example, divided into many small symposia, which makes group discussion easier. Butlin says the transition to social or down-time is also vital: don't pack the programme, allow time for lunch and free thinking and provide a place for informal interaction.

Lastly, Butlin advises conference organisers to set up a separate e-mail account for the myriad inquiries. "You can receive incredibly stupid questions just because they know your name."

Aim to be a smooth operator

An eye for detail is the sure-fire way to organise a memorable convention

"Attention to meticulous detail as it's happening" is the key to a smooth conference, according to Judith Brown, professor of history at Oxford University and a veteran of conference organising. "All sorts of things can go wrong," she says. "I once had an American guest demand that the history faculty provide secretarial facilities."

Brown advises designating one person to do the administrative work - booking rooms, arranging travel and accommodation, sorting out conference rooms and IT - to be on hand to answer questions and to do emergency photocopying. "I also find a couple of local graduates who know the area to be invaluable as assistants - they can take care of people, run around generally and also gain valuable connections with senior people."

Programmes should have clear guidelines about length and type of presentation and the nature of the question session. And the sessions demand strong but courteous chairmen. At least one conference meal or dinner fairly early in the session helps to bond people and break the ice, she says. And it is important not to pack too much in: give people room to think, to explore the locale and make valuable connections.

Afterwards, editing "the book of the conference" can be fraught with problems, she says. "Colleagues are amazing at failing to keep within word length, failing to observe footnoting conventions and so on." She stresses that it is advisable, where possible, to enlist the help of an experienced independent editor.

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