Friday 26 June 2015

IUGG and Planetary Meeting Overload

I’m in the air returning from a relatively poorly-known meeting in planetary science, the IUGG (International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, meeting that was held this year in Prague.  These quadrennial meetings have an extremely long history, dating back to 1919 when they were first established in Brussels, but they are mainly dedicated to studies of planet Earth and its immediate environment.  There’s a smattering of ‘off-world’ topics scattered throughout the Union’s remit, but the number of Earth scientists engaging with their planetary science counterparts is relatively low.  I hope that will change, and this year myself and others convened a couple of comparative planetology sessions, hoping to attract a broad audience from across IUGG.

IUGG is one of the 31 Unions that make up the International Council of Science (ICS,, which also features the IAU (International Astronomy Union), famed for its demotion of Pluto from planet status.  These Unions are organised in very specific ways - the IUGG has eight Scientific Associations (cryospheric science, geomagnetism and aeronomy, meteorology and atmospheric science, seismology and Earth’s interior, geodesy, hydrological science, ocean science and volcanic science).  Each Association then has a number of commissions that operate on a more detailed level.

Within IAMAS, the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences (, I have been helping to manage one such commission, known as the International Commission for Planetary Atmospheres and their Evolution (ICPAE).  I’ve been the Vice President since my election in 2011, with Sanjay Limaye (University of Madison Wisconsin) as the President.  After four years I’ve decided to step down due to other commitments, but I wanted to record here my understanding of how all of these Councils, Unions, Associations and Commissions are organised.  To a newcomer, all the acronyms can be mind-boggling.  The next meeting in 2017 is known as the IAGA-IAMAS-IAPSO meeting, for example, which doesn’t tell you very much!

I certainly like the idea of these international unions and associations - these meetings are among the most diverse that I’ve ever attended, with people from all over the world attending.  So collaborations are clearly being fostered, but in the planetary community, straddling both the astronomical communities and the geophysical communities, we’re swamped with a ridiculously high number of meetings.  On a continental level there’s AGU (American Geophysical Union), AAS (American Astronomical Society) and DPS (Division of Planetary Sciences) meetings in the US; EGU (European Geophysical Union) and EPSC (European Planetary Sciences Congress) in Europe; AOGS (Asia-Oceana Geophysical Society) in Asia, and many more meetings at a national level.  Then there are ‘international’ meetings like COSPAR (Committee for Space Research,, which is actually also a part of the International Council for Science (ICS…. and the acronym forest grows thicker), and newcomers like ExoClimes and the Chapman meetings…. the list grows every year, and I sometimes groan when new meetings are announced.

All in all, you never find the whole planetary community at one single meeting.  Each meeting has it’s own problems (too many parallel sessions, expensive locations, etc), and although DPS and EPSC are my personal favourites, it’s hard to keep up with the constant calls for abstracts. Even harder when dealing with funding councils who don’t always recognise that travel is essential for collaboration and ‘selling’ your science!  One look at the gargantuan multi-page tables of acronyms that made up the IUGG conference program confirmed that I’d made the right decision.  For me, the IUGG meeting was a good example of conference overload, with only a few tens of planetary scientists attending, despite the great opportunity to meet with our Earth science colleagues.  Hopefully the 2017 meeting can be made more inclusive to attract a wider audience.