Conference Room

On the proliferation of water conferences

I like conferences. That’s a good thing, because academics attend a lot of conferences. The conference circuit is especially busy for those of us who do significant interdisciplinary and applied research. As a political scientist who works on public management and water policy, that means 1-2 political science conferences (APSA, MPSA, SPSA), 1-2 public administration/public policy conferences (APPAM, PMRC, ASPA), and 1-2 water conferences.

Water conferences are a bit different, because they’re attended mostly by more working professionals than academics. Interacting with people who grapple with real policy, political, and management challenges generates new research questions, empirical studies, and theoretical developments. Water conferences connect people who work on water resources, drinking water, stormwater management, wastewater treatment, reuse, desalination, construction, finance, law, conservation, environmental justice, and more—each of these topics is inextricably linked to the others. Water conferences are terribly important for scholars because they facilitate interaction across disciplinary silos and make our research relevant. Academics are important for water conferences because they get the latest, most rigorous research into the hands of managers, advocates, and policymakers.

Water conferences: so many, so costly

I have no trend data, but it feels like water conferences have proliferated over the past decade. I’ve been attending ACE and UMC for years, but every week my email and twitter feed tell me about another conference meeting where utility leaders, scholars, engineers, analysts and advocates are talking about water.

Just as the nation is rediscovering water’s importance, so apparently have conference organizers. There are dozens of water-focused conferences each year in the United States alone. I quickly catalogued the conferences that would be relevant for my own work on urban water policy, management and finance in the United States. I didn’t include conferences that are principally academic. Looking only at national conferences in 2018 here’s what I found:

That’s eleven national conferences with an average registration fee of $680…. and that’s just general policy/management conferences. For people who work on the technical side of the water business, there are many more. In most cases, the volunteers who plan and present at conferences also have to pay registration fees. Combined with travel costs, those fees strain meager public sector and academic conference budgets.

The perils of proliferation

Not everyone has to attend every conference, there is a place for specialized conferences, and it’s good that meetings are available at various times of year. Still, I can’t shake the uneasy feeling that we’ve passed the socially optimal number of conferences in the water sector.

To be valuable, professional conferences rely on network economies and/or economies of agglomeration: the benefit of any conference is a function of the number and variety of other attendees. Water conferences are most valuable if they provide participants access to people and information that they otherwise wouldn’t encounter. At some point, an increasing number of conferences dilutes their value to individuals, organizations, and the water community at large.

Water organizations make big money through conferences, but collectively they may have reached a point of diminishing returns to the water community.

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