Last month I attended a program committee meeting in Paris. It was a great trip: convenient since Delta has a direct SLC-CDG flight, productive since the meeting was useful and I think the program ended up being strong, and also fun since I took two extra days to putz around Paris, a city where I haven’t spent any significant time since 2000. But, it got me thinking: is this really the best use of resources?
A bit of background: it is common for conference paper committees in computer science to meet in person to decide which papers are accepted and which are not. This is one of the most important jobs that academics do, so of course we want to do a good job. As the thinking goes, there are in-person effects that cannot be captured in a telecon or over email, so we must meet in person in order to make the right decisions. Although I’ve run two such meetings and attended many more, I’m not totally sure they’re necessary. Why not? First, there are always a lot of papers that everyone agrees (ahead of time) should not appear in the program. Also, there are always some papers that everyone agrees should be in the program. Thus, the meeting is only about the marginal papers, and there are reasonable arguments that the decision process for marginal papers is quite noisy.
Let us look at the economics a little more closely. If we put a meeting in Chicago and have 20 attendees from the USA at 1000 miles of one-way air travel each, that’s 40,000 miles. If there are 5 people from Europe at the meeting (at 4000 one-way miles each), that’s 40,000 more miles. Add 3 from Australia or Asia (at 7000 one-way miles each) and we get 40,000 more miles, for a total of 120,000 air miles. At 50 passenger-miles per gallon, this PC meeting is burning 2400 gallons of jet fuel, or more than a quarter of a standard 9000 gallon tanker truckload. That seems like a lot.
The next question to ask is: how high do oil prices have to rise before in-person PC meetings are dropped? That is, before the community decides that the cost of 2400 gallons of gas exceeds the incremental benefit of the in-person PC meetings vs. remote? I don’t pretend to be an expert on the psychology of academic meetings or the economics of air travel, but my guess is that a phase change occurs at a price not hugely greater than the 2008 peak, maybe at $250/barrel.