Q&A with Ron Mangun, CNS President

April 30, 2020

The Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS), FABBS’ newest society, brings together scientists committed to understanding the nature of thought by investigating the psychological, computational, and neuroscientific basis of cognition. CNS had been scheduled to host their annual meeting in Boston on March 14 -17, 2020. Forced to cancel the in-person meeting due to the pandemic, CNS will be holding a virtual meeting on May 2-5, 2020, providing participants an opportunity to share their work and connect with an international audience of attendees. CNS President, Ron Mangun found a few minutes to talk about their experience:

FABBS: CNS made the decision to cancel the in-person meeting on March 6. School was still in session, restaurants still open, toilet paper still on the shelves — how did you know that you had to make that decision?

CNS:  Our Governing Board made the decision out of concern for the health of our members and the surrounding communities, based on the latest public health authority information on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), including advisories from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the CDC, and WHO. Many countries, agencies, and institutions had already banned travel, and several communities were recommending self-quarantining, in order to limit the spread of the disease. Meetings at the Boston venue where we were to meet were also beginning to be cancelled. In late February the now well-known Biogen conference took place in a Boston hotel where the first outbreak was observed. This became public knowledge on March 6, and things moved fast after that.

FABBS: How did your members respond?

CNS: With disappointment, but also amazing understanding and almost unanimous agreement. The communications we received were very supportive – our membership and attendees all understood how much work had taken place by all involved over the previous several months and also appreciated our efforts to protect their health and safety.

FABBS: One advantage of the virtual meeting is that it is more accessible to researchers who may not typically attend CNS. Is this a silver lining?

CNS: Yes, absolutely. There are two important positive points to keep in mind. First, as you mentioned, it is now possible for more people to attend who could not before, either for financial, personal or political reasons (i.e., visas). The virtual meeting therefore supports social justice and access. Second, many of our members are concerned about the carbon footprint of in-person meetings, and adding a virtual option positively addresses this important concern.

FABBS: What keynote sessions should not be missed?

CNS: It is all exciting! But the major talks include our opening Keynote address by Michael Tomasello “Origins of Human Cooperation”, our Fred Kavli Distinguished Career Contributions Award lecture by Marlene Behrmann “Hemispheric Organization for Visual Recognition”, and the George A. Miller Prize lecture by Nancy Kanwisher “Functional Imaging of the Human Brain: A Window into the Architecture of the Mind”.  In addition, there are the talks by our Young Investigator Award winners.

FABBS: What are Datablitz sessions?

CNS: These are short (5 min) rapid-fire oral presentations selected from amongst the more than 1000 poster presentations submitted for the meeting. It is a way to see a lot of new research in a short span of time.

FABBS: Can you give an idea of the level of interest in the virtual meeting at this time?

CNS: Yes, one measure is that since re-opening for additional new poster submissions (the closing date was April 14, 2020), we received close to 200 new submissions from around the world, increasing the total poster presentations by about 25% over the Boston meeting. As well, registration for the meeting has increased by just over 500 attendees. Another measure is that of all the speakers for major lectures sessions, more than 95% are able to participate in the meeting. Finally, several important new sponsors have come aboard, including the Donders Institute in the Netherlands, the Basque Center for Cognition, Brain and Language in Spain, University College London-Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany, and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (MIT  Press). Plus we have a new partner organization for the meeting – the Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Society. Their support is essential to making this all possible. We are excited!

FABBS: Is there any upside to the virtual meeting beyond merely saving the annual event.

CNS: You bet. More people from around the world can now attend the meeting. Many could not before due to financial, personal or even political reasons. This is a tremendous step forward for inclusivity and access. In addition, many of our members are concerned about the carbon footprint of in-person meetings, and a virtual meeting addresses this concern and supports the health of our planet. We won’t abandon the physical meeting, but I think we won’t abandon the virtual component either. There is a bright new future coming, and this year is our experiment about what it could look like.