A collective statement was sent by a group of Scientists to the Trustees of the Deep-Sea Biology Society, expressing concern about the upcoming 16th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium and containing suggestions for an improved way forward. The Society’s reply is posted below.
Deep-Sea Biology Society
June 1, 2021
RE: 16th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium
Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world, with 4.1 million cases and 84,000 deaths reported globally last week. While there has been progress in some countries, there continues to be substantial spread and untold suffering observed in many others. This disparity is in part due to inequities surrounding vaccine access, despite warnings from the World Health Organization that there was “scandalous inequity”. We, the undersigned, feel that the Society, as a scientifically educated body, must recognize the best science at hand regarding COVID-19. Furthermore, as a society with the mission to “to promote demographic diversity in the study of deep-sea biology”, we must both recognize and accommodate these health inequities in decision making.
We realise the challenges in organising the upcoming 16th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium (16DSBS) in the current COVID-19 times. However, we feel compelled to raise concerns and make suggestions.
Many critical international meetings have been postponed for the foreseeable future because of the uncertainty and unavailability of travel, as well as concerns for health. These issues also apply to the 16DSBS. While the move from an in-person to hybrid format may be well intentioned, it in fact lays bare already-existent inequities and highlights the lack of commitment to the Society’s mission of inclusion within our deep-sea biology community. At the time of writing this letter, the only nationalities that can enter France without a mandated quarantine of seven days are those from within the EU. This means that large swaths of the community will not be able to attend in person, ultimately to the detriment of the Society. This decision raises fundamental equity questions – not least about who is benefitting from an in-person meeting and who is disadvantaged. It is also questionable whether it is scientifically prudent to encourage people to travel, particularly those who have not yet had access to vaccines, when there is a viable (online) alternative.
These issues of access are compounded by an online-only registration that is unaffordable (100-325 Euros) for many of the individuals planning to attend virtually, some for only one
session. This, despite the fact that many of the benefits of attending the Symposium in person will not be available to online participants (e.g., networking, the experience of attending a conference).
We recognise that the Society and 16DSBS organisers have tried to alleviate some of these issues by offering financial assistance or free access as a result of gaining sponsorship; however these efforts are inadequate. First, the free online access only applies if you are not presenting. Second, asking individuals to apply for financial assistance, rather than lowering costs across the board or tiering fees by country of residence, places additional burden on those in need, and requires the airing of an individual’s socioeconomic status as well as their assessment as to whether their need is greater than someone else. For the latter, those in lower socioeconomic situations often do not apply for support because they feel others may be in greater need. Third, the travel awards will not cover the majority of in-person costs and may end up being of little (if any) use given France’s border policy. Fourth, the cancellation policy is incongruous with the rapidly changing travel situation – between 12-6 weeks before the Symposium only 50% of registration is refunded, and after 6 weeks there is no refund. This week, France mandated that all arrivals from the UK must be quarantined for seven days. Given this uncertainty, flexibility would be appropriate.
Several weeks have passed since these issues were flagged by many members and unfortunately, the few changes that have been made by the Society and 16DSBS organisers are tokenistic and do not fully recognize the gravity of the current situation. This issue has made it clear that the Society is not aligned with its mission to promote demographic diversity, inclusion and equity. It also highlights a lack of empathy for those who are not the norm in the community. Further, the communications that have come from the Society and 16DSBS organisers are misleading. For example, a recent email declaring this symposium “open to all”, when this could not be further from the truth.
The membership deserves more proactive and thoughtful approaches to these issues. Below, we call for specific changes that should be adopted by the leadership on behalf of the Society.
- We applaud the recent invitation (31st May 2021) to members to discuss this issue; however, the Society should conduct two online forums accommodating varying time zones to begin an open and transparent conversation with the membership. These forums should include details of the decision-making process, justification for the fees of online participants, the numbers of in-person and online attendees and their country demographics, specifics of how diversity and inclusion are being addressed in the Symposium, what new changes will be implemented to address the concerns here, as well as opportunities for the membership to provide feedback and raise
- Transition 16DSBS to virtual participation only or further postpone until travel restrictions have been relaxed. Without an in-person component, all of the membership is on a level playing field and many of these inequities are Prioritising access is the only way to truly represent the interests of all of the global community and the reality that global science is a global good, an issue of particular importance given the highly international nature of deep-sea biology.
- Given the potential loss of funds to the Society or IFREMER, communicate these specific losses to the membership and work with the membership to create a fiduciary plan to alleviate these financial burdens on the Society and
- Develop a plan to lower the costs of virtual participation for all the membership and specifically for those of socioeconomic need or minority
- Create a specific plan to actively reduce the registration fees and seek locations to lower travel costs for future Even without COVID related issues, the escalating costs of DSBS meetings are pricing many out of participation.
- Create a committee with the responsibility to develop a fee and/or assistance model for future symposiums that places financial support with those most in need in a considerate way e.g., a tiered approach to
- Amend the constitution, with a vote of the membership, that both Symposium location and overall format requires majority membership approval. This would formalize the process already observed by the While we understand this was an unusual situation, we do not feel the current location, e.g. France, or format being decided by the leadership, is within the Society’s norms of the membership voting on location. While we recognise that the French delegation presented their case, no official vote was taken for them to be the alternate host. Furthemore, we hope this will mark the beginning of much greater consultation with the membership.
- Finally, although the Society has instituted a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct that explicitly prohibits discrimination and expands the commitment to inclusion and equity, it would be helpful to develop and implement procedures and activities to move these from empty platitudes on
While we all yearn to be with colleagues and friends reveling in the latest deep-sea science, to move forward in this business-as-usual scenario not only reminds members that “scandalous inequity” exists in this community too, but those charged with working to fix it are not listening or leading. If the Society is not willing to empathise and make changes to benefit all in a global catastrophe, when will we be? Not only are we a small and nimble community but the Society should reflect the deep-sea science tradition of standing strong and overcoming obstacles.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. We hope to hear from you soon.
Dr. Diva Amon, SpeSeas, Trinidad and Tobago
Dr. Elva Escobar, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico Dr. Judith Gobin, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago Dr. Nick Higgs, Cape Eleuthera Institute, The Bahamas
Dr. Julie Huber, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA
Prof. Lisa Levin, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, USA Assoc. Prof. Craig McClain, LUMCON, USA
Prof. Anna Metaxas, Dalhousie University, Canada
Declan Morrissey, National University of Ireland Galway, Ireland Dr Michelle Taylor, University of Essex, UK
Prof. Les Watling, University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA
Response from the Trustees of the Deep-Sea Biology Society on 22.06.2021
Thank you for your letter of 1 June 2021 in which you highlighted several important concerns regarding the forthcoming 16th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium (16DSBS). We very much welcome your feedback and ideas, which are incredibly important in helping the Trustees and the entire Membership contribute to making the Symposium and future Symposia better events. We have started a consultation period with the members on the format of future Symposia, so your input at this time is welcome and timely.
We have responded below to your points, but there are some general comments we can make first which may help you understand the context of where we are, and the relationship between the Society and the Symposia, which has been changing in recent years. You may recall that one of the objectives of setting up the Society was to provide a more formal platform to help facilitate the regular Symposia. At the 14th DSBS (Aveiro) in 2015, the Society was very new and had almost no influence over the format of the Symposia and no involvement in the finances of the meeting. In 2018, at 15DSBS, the Society for the first time was set up in a way that it could be formally consulted through communications with the Conference Trustee on aspects of how the Symposia was to be run, acting as an additional committee without executive authority. Thanks to the generosity of the host institute the surplus income from the Symposia was donated to the Society to allow a reserve fund to be set aside to make sure the next Symposia could be hosted. Now, in 2021, we have evolved this relationship even further with a full Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Local Organising Committee (LOC) and the Society which specifically sets out certain requirements of the LOC, including the return of surplus income from the Symposium to the Society (allowing the funds to be used in future Symposia to reduce costs) rather than these funds being retained by the host institutes as profit. These funds add to other sources of funds gained by the Society to promote deep-sea science, including travel support to the Symposia. All of the Society’s financial accounting is reported completely transparently every year to the Members at the AGM, where the accounts (independently audited) are voted on by the membership.
So you can see that there has been a steady increase in the involvement of the Society in the hosting of the Symposia, but it is very important to point out that the decision-making body for the Symposia is the LOC. Currently, we provide advice on anything the LOC needs, oversee the decision on the venue for subsequent Symposia, host the Annual General Meeting (AGM), and fund and organise travel and other awards. We are not, for example, a body that could demand the postponement or cancellation of the meeting, or a change from an in-person meeting to an online one after our initial agreement via the MoU is signed; however, the Society did insist during initial communications with the LOC (before the MoU was signed) that 16DSBS be planned as a hybrid with an online component to provide an option for participation in person or online in case some or all countries were still impacted by the pandemic. At this stage of planning, only the LOC can decide on changing the symposium format, as it is the LOC that is exposed to all of the very large financial risks involved, such as the loss of the funds that have been committed to the venues. Despite our growth, the Society and its Symposia are still relatively small in membership/attendees (hundreds) and financial resources compared to other societies.
This limited involvement may not necessarily be the case in all future Symposia, as the Society is now financially viable enough to be able to potentially take on the financial risk of being the hosting organisation thus freeing members to individually propose to host the Symposia in a venue of their choosing, underwritten by the Society. This model was trialled at the last International Symposium on Deep-Sea Corals in Cartagena, Colombia in 2019 and it worked well. This model allowed the venue to be in a developing nation and attract more scientists from developing nations, thus increasing diversity and inclusivity. These two key concerns in your letter are major concerns shared by the Society Trustees.
An additional more general point is that there are upcoming opportunities for members to be more officially engaged with the running of the Society. In September this year, all of the currently serving Trustees’ terms will end – most Trustees will not run for another term – and their positions will open in July for new nominations. In addition, the Trustees have approved the creation of a diversity panel to report formally to the Trustees, and we expect from July that calls for nominations on that panel will open and that those with a keen interest and concerns on these issues will consider volunteering time for these positions. The Society Trustees work entirely on a voluntary basis and so for any new actions to be taken, volunteers will be needed to take them forward, either from Members serving on committees or from the Trustees themselves. One thing we have noted is that with a membership of ~500 (up from ~150 just 5 years ago) and our wide range of work on the annual meetings, symposia, development, awards, communications, students, early-careers, mentoring, finances, membership systems, annual accounts and reporting is that our Trustees are currently extremely stretched, volunteering their time to try and maximise delivery of the Society’s objectives. The Trustees are also largely composed of mid, early-career and student researchers who have incredibly stressful demands on their time (e.g dependent care, trying to obtain positions or tenure, etc). We hope that the next group of Trustees will represent the diversity of our community and will continue helping our community grow, develop and lift each other up.
Specific responses to your numbered comments (your comments in italics):
1. We applaud the recent invitation (31st May 2021) to members to discuss this issue; however, the Society should conduct two online forums accommodating varying time zones to begin an open and transparent conversation with the membership. These forums should include details of the decision-making process, justification for the fees of online participants, the numbers of in-person and online attendees and their country demographics, specifics of how diversity and inclusion are being addressed in the Symposium, what new changes will be implemented to address the concerns here, as well as opportunities for the membership to provide feedback and raise concerns.
We agree and we have hosted the first online forum, which was very useful, and we answered the questions to the best of our knowledge. We are trying to host the second in another time zone (Asia-Pacific) but this process is taking some time to organize, as we need to hire a second moderator willing to work in that time zone. We have contacted potential moderators and hope to have this issue resolved within a week.
2. Transition 16DSBS to virtual participation only or further postpone until travel restrictions have been relaxed. Without an in-person component, all of the membership is on a level playing field and many of these inequities are alleviated. Prioritising access is the only way to truly represent the interests of all of the global community and the reality that global science is a global good, an issue of particular importance given the highly international nature of deep-sea biology.
For the reasons outlined earlier, the Society is not in a position to make a decision on postponing 16DSBS or cancelling the in-person event, because only the LOC can do so as they are exposed to the financial risk. When IFREMER stepped in to host the meeting (late July 2020), relatively late in the process, the Society made it clear that we expected the Symposia to be fully accessible online (hybrid option) as we anticipated that some people would not be able to travel. Now, the situation is obviously worse than we hoped for, with huge numbers of countries without access to vaccines and many countries likely to have travel bans still in place in September and beyond. We are left with the sad option to host an event where a large portion of people will be unable to attend the in-person event. Therefore, providing an opportunity for anyone to join online will help make this meeting more accessible, virtually, across the world. We fully support the LOC in their enormous efforts to try and accommodate everyone’s needs by offering both in-person and online meetings for the first time in the history of DSBS in very challenging circumstances. These efforts have come at considerable financial cost to the host institute and large amounts of volunteer time from all those involved. However, we do recognize this hybrid option is very far from ideal, particularly as not everyone will be able to participate in real time. The LOC has secured a platform that will allow attendees to view talks and posters and comment on them for a period of time after the live presentations. In addition, we recognize that this hybrid format disadvantages those who cannot attend in person, and likely impacts our early-career and student members the most. We hope to alleviate some of these imbalances by providing virtual-only Society events at the 16DSBS and by dedicating funds to cover all the registration costs for those (presenters and non-presenters) with financial need. We welcome additional ideas to support our online community during the meeting.
To support our early-career members, the Society did successfully host a fully virtual conference in late 2020, which was supported by small grants and volunteer time of the trustees. This first-ever completely online DSBS conference event had an emphasis on early-career researchers, and was conducted at almost no cost to the participants (active Society membership, which could be waived).
3. Given the potential loss of funds to the Society or IFREMER, communicate these specific losses to the membership and work with the membership to create a fiduciary plan to alleviate these financial burdens on the Society and
If the meeting was cancelled now the losses (>£200K) to the LOC are likely to exceed by a factor of 3 the total assets of the Society, thus we would not be able to take on this burden.
4. Develop a plan to lower the costs of virtual participation for all the membership and specifically for those of socioeconomic need or minority
We raised >30,000 USD (~20,000 GBP) in sponsorships to support virtual participation for those who need it. Anyone (presenter and non-presenter) who needs help in paying their online fees can apply for our awards. We have so far processed over 100 awards for online attendance which have all been approved and we continue to keep the call open until the start of the meeting. We have also approved a record number of in-person travel awards. In addition, we have been providing membership fee waivers for those unable to pay since 2020 (more than three dozen so far). Priority always goes to those in financial need, but unfortunately our system currently relies on those people to self-identify this need. We need a better system or self identification that removes any potential biases, as well as a better way to recognise minority status from the demographic data we have historically collected (a review of the demographic data fields for society members is ongoing). We recognise that we should have worked on this earlier but we are pleased with what we have managed to achieve over the last month. Our new diversity panel will work with a professional consultant to help make our award system more equitable and transparent; we also plan to elicit feedback from our membership.
5. Create a specific plan to actively reduce the registration fees and seek locations to lower travel costs for future Even without COVID related issues, the escalating costs of DSBS meetings are pricing many out of participation.
This issue is something we are actively working on, and agree it is very important. It is worth pointing out that the costs of 16DSBS (including registration but especially accommodation and food costs) are substantially lower than 15DSBS. This trend is in the right direction but we need to keep trying to minimize these fees. One of the ways to keep costs down is through sponsorship. The role of the Society is critical here, as we will always try to seek sponsorship that is in the best interests of promoting the strategic objectives of the society. Increasing our demographic diversity and access to meetings are key aims.
Traditionally, symposia locations and formats have been chosen based on bids that focus on amenities and desirable destinations, which inevitably makes the cost involved with the symposia high. We would like to see a change where the host bids focus on plans to increase diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility (DEIA). This change in focus will be reflected in the next call of proposals for the 17DSBS as well as in the MoU format. We recognize that addressing DEIA cannot continue to be left as an afterthought when organizing scientific meetings, but needs to be part of the host selection, planning, and budgeting from the beginning.
6. Create a committee with the responsibility to develop a fee and/or assistance model for future symposiums that places financial support with those most in need in a considerate way e.g., a tiered approach to
This idea is very good but it must be remembered that unless the Society takes on the financial responsibility for the Symposia (which can happen in some cases) it will not be able to set costs, only advise and provide oversight. It would make a lot of sense to work with the new DEIA panel in conjunction with a professional consultant to develop better guidance for future LOCs on how to tier the costs in a most appropriate way. We have identified significant gaps in our oversight powers as defined in the current MoU document. We are currently working on a revised version that addresses this and other issues for future symposia as we gear up to open a call for proposals for 17DSBS. The Trustees plan to share this MoU membership for feedback prior to the annual general meeting (AGM) in September.
7. Amend the constitution, with a vote of the membership, that both Symposium location and overall format requires majority membership This would formalize the process already observed by the membership. While we understand this was an unusual situation, we do not feel the current location, e.g. France, or format being decided by the leadership, is within the Society’s norms of the membership voting on location. While we recognise that the French delegation presented their case, no official vote was taken for them to be the alternate host. Furthemore, we hope this will mark the beginning of much greater consultation with the membership.
The current voting arrangements are that there is a free vote on competing bids and the winner is the bid with the most votes (‘first past the post’ plurality voting system). We are not sure what you mean by ‘majority membership approval’ as a voting system but feel free to get back to us with some more detail. If you mean a system where votes must reach a majority of the entire membership this is probably impossible to achieve in practice, particularly if three bids are submitted, and typically a very large number of members do not vote. In this case, the Constitution does not address how to manage a situation in which a host backs out after the election process ends, let alone ~12-15 months prior to the event. France was the runner-up (and only other nominee) to Japan in the vote for the 16DSBS meeting, therefore the Trustees made a decision a year ago to ask IFREMER if they wanted to host the Symposia. Here, we recognise that we could have better communicated this decision-making process with our membership and should have concurrently solicited feedback regarding this action. We are not convinced that a major constitutional reform is required here but are always open to suggestions. The most important thing is to try and persuade more hosts to bid for the Symposia, particularly in developing nations, and to request that bids include format description on which membership will vote.
8. Finally, although the Society has instituted a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct that explicitly prohibits discrimination and expands the commitment to inclusion and equity, it would be helpful to develop and implement procedures and activities to move these from empty platitudes on
The Society operated from 2013 to 2020 without any sort of code of ethics, although we did instigate the introduction of the first Symposia code of conduct at Symposia starting in 2018. We were very pleased to formally introduce the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct in 2020. We can assure you that these are not empty platitudes on paper; they are very serious and there are procedures to remove any members from the Society that are in breach of them. We have made a significant commitment in our strategic objectives to diversity, equity and inclusivity but so far lack the funds and volunteer time from our members to take them further than what we have done so far. The actions we have taken to date are outlined in the recent email update from our Diversity Officer. We also have been advised that all Trustees should be educated in social justice, and thus plan for this education for all future Trustee cohorts of the Society. Education is the crucial first step towards a Society with diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism in its core, and to ensure that well-intentioned efforts do not do harm. DEIA work is an urgent matter, but it can take time, mainly being honest and accountable about “where” we are now in our social justice understanding and education. We, as a Society in general, do not have education about social justice. Considering academia is one of the most colonised and privileged institutions in our society, we need to start from the very beginning. The good side is if we do have a good foundation, all the work will have a solid and aligned outcome.
Thank you for your feedback and suggestions for making the DSBS a more equitable society. We are actively working on increasing access and inclusion in our Society and Symposia, but have much work to do (and look forward to undertaking this important work). We hope to continue these important discussions, for it is only through our collective efforts that we can make the DSBS a more equitable environment for all deep-sea scientists. We look forward to receiving more contributions from our members to instigate further actions to help in this area, including volunteering their time to serve on committees and, as with your letter, providing feedback and help to the Trustees.
On behalf of,
The Trustees of the Deep-Sea Biology Society