Beer at Conferences

Over on Twitter, Erik started a conversation about the practice of the major geoscience societies (AGU and GSA in the US) to provide free beer during the poster sessions:

It’s turned into a substantial conversation, where complex mixed-thoughts are trying to squeeze into 140 characters.

Edited for clearer context: I haven’t attended GSA, but at AGU, the alcoholic beverages are linked to a drink ticket and non-alcoholic beverages are unlimited. Each attendee receives one drink ticket per event, although it is not atypical for non-drinking or non-attending attendees to hand off their tickets to someone else (particularly to students), enabling multiple drinks. At some geoscience meetings, students or other low-cost memberships do not receive tickets. At some events (usually evening receptions), the drinks are provided via a cash bar, so it is possible to purchase additional drinks after the ticket/complementary drink.

Cian is concerned by the normalization of alcohol in geoscience culture:

As a TA at field school, I made $200 just in recycling the empties of what my students consumed in a week. And yet it was a self-correcting problem: fieldwork doesn’t have days off. If they drank too much and woke up at dawn with a hangover, all it earned them was the right to tromp around in the rain while their eyeballs pounded, and try not to puke while measuring strikes and dips.

Over-drinking at AGU doesn’t have such an instantaneous feedback mechanism of the consequences of terrible ideas (skip the morning sessions to sleep it off), but being drunk in a professional setting certainly does. The social norms of geoscience giddily embrace the Field Assistant Beer for GSA’s 125th anniversary, but who would hire a field assistant who was drunk or hungover? Ours is an active profession, where phrases like, “Must be able to hike long distances over rough terrain in all weather while carrying heavy loads” is a perfectly normal sentence in a job description. Being unaware or uncoordinated in the field damages data quality, increases likelihood of injury, and endangers field crews. Dry camps exist for a reason.

Alan commented the presence of beer as an acknowledgement that the conference attendees are (mostly) adults, and are professionals capable of consuming an intoxicant responsibly. The key aspect of that is an assumption of professionalism:

Conference-goers are adults, and adults sometimes drink, but it’s still within a professional context. Although some people will abuse the presence of free alcohol, those are people I want to learn that about now, in the safety of a gigantic poster hall where it is easy to abandon them in the crowd. I don’t want to learn it after I’ve spent time building a professional relationship and am working with them in an isolated field site. Alcohol abuse happens. I don’t know if its rate is higher or lower in exploration field camps — even some dry camps should more practically be considered damp — but the problem of what to do with someone who cannot regulate their consumption is certainly a lot more problematic when in the field. The filter works in all directions of authority: someone who is incapable of executing the good judgement and self control to drink responsibly in a professional setting is not someone I want to work for, work with, or have work for me. Anyone who manages to get unprofessionally drunk in a large, cold room with ridiculously tall ceilings and bright lights while surrounded by potential employers and employees has a lack of good judgement, and learning it before I even remember their name saves me a major problem down the line.

Finally, the poster sessions don’t just serve beer. As Eric corrects:

Although I’ve never felt any pressure to drink, the long lines, quickly emptying kegs, and alternative beverage options all provide easy excuses for why one isn’t drinking. By bringing beer into the posters halls, AGU successfully opens up the range of people who will stay and participate:

Some people are going to drink an afternoon beer. By providing it during the afternoon posters, the AGU captures those people and keeps them engaged in the event. Instead of people hiding away in private conversations tucked away at a pub, those conversations are happening in a brightly-lit conference hall. This makes them accessible to undergraduates who are primarily under the drinking age of 21. The other beverage options make the event inclusive of non- or light-drinkers, or the un- and under-employed on limited budgets who would feel pressured to make over-priced purchases at a pub. And it reduces the chances of awkward moments when someone in a conversation thinks that heading off to a poorly-lit alcohol-centric social venue meant that the relationship wasn’t so professional anymore (and keeps around a large crowd of people and a very present staff to intervene in a rescue if alcohol-alone is enough to create that situation).

Beverages creates an excuse to loiter and engage in less-directed conversations, while posters provide starting-points to initiate a conversation when networking with strangers. That the choice of beverage options includes an intoxicant might test some people’s professionalism, but it also takes networking opportunities out of private pubs and into the conference venue.

Edited to add: The best bit about the free beer, coffee, tea, and everything else on offer? You don’t need to drink any of it, and you’ll still be a geoscientist.

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4 Responses to Beer at Conferences

  1. One additional thought: the presence of beer may be upsetting to those who have alcoholic friends/relatives, or worse, destabilizing to those who are themselves alcoholics…

    I like it, but I can see how it could be a very big negative to those in the previous situations.

  2. Maureen Moses says:

    Interesting read, and it’s great to take the pulse of the community. I am so sad I missed this exchange! I concur with Callan, alcoholism is a nasty disease and has affected people I love dearly, but I personally haven’t ever seen anybody trashed at a poster session (and my job is to go to these meetings on a monthly basis). I enjoy a beer or two (if I have the patience to get in line again), but I still want to make a good impression on my colleagues. Can I call that self-regulating peer pressure? Plus, geoscience meetings aren’t even that nice compared to other industries. Like, we don’t have major employers of geoscientists throwing community-wide parties at a nice restaurant, with party favors, “fake gambling” and live bands during a meeting. I could see a debaucherous affair like that being something extremely off-putting, and genuinely unrelated to science.

    At geoscience meetings, I have felt the science is always the first, and foremost event. Field camps are a different beast all together because I believe the tone is set by the institution versus a society which is a collective group of peers. When I was going through field camp, I genuinely felt that the faculty took student safety seriously but there was always an element of you’re an adult, and you are expected to be responsible for yourself. Either way, I LOVE the way this blog finished, “The best bit about the free beer, coffee, tea, and everything else on offer? You don’t need to drink any of it, and you’ll still be a geoscientist.” I think that could be said about life in general.

  3. Mika says:

    So, to me, the big argument in favour of beer at conventions is that it breaks that alcohol-fuelled networking out of pubs and into a controlled, limited environment. That opens networking opportunities up to those underaged, under-employed, or just downright uncomfortable.

    Being around adults who consume alcohol is a normal part of life in most places (major exceptions); being in a situation where you can talk to them without pressure to also drink is as inclusive as the situation can get. I feel like the situation is uglier when alcohol is unavailable: people leave for the pub where they can buy unlimited drinks and anyone who wants to join them is expected to also buy drinks. Instead, by providing drink tickets, alcoholic drinks are limited in quantity, non-alcoholic drinks are provided, lots of other people are around (safety in numbers if someone gets inappropriate), and there is no expectation to spend money.

  4. Kansas says:

    Americans are such pearl clutchers. There’s really nothing wrong with having beer available to adults. If a person does not partake, there’s plenty of iced tea or whatever.

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