Welcome to 2020 and the lunar new year, the year of the rat in the Chinese zodiac. The rat is certainly an important animal to the imaging community and thus, likely 2020 will be an auspicious year. You will see—I am going to always take the optimistic view in this letter!
First and foremost, we are in “full-steam-ahead” mode for the 2020 annual meeting in Sydney (April 18-23). Roberta Kravitz, the Executive Director of the ISMRM, Anne-Marie Kahrovic, the Director of Meetings, and pretty much every one of the 16 Central Office staff is now dedicated to this effort. The 89 members of the Annual Meeting Program Committee (AMPC) just met to finalize the sessions constructed from the >6000 submitted abstracts reviewed by >700 reviewers.
From my position on the Engineering, Safety and Interventional AMPC table, it looks to be a great program. Doug Noll, our AMPC program chair, and Nicole Seiberlich, the current Educational Chair and 2021 AMPC chair, have tweaked the program to brew an amazing educational and scientific cocktail out of the formable content the Society generates. The named lectures and plenaries are in place and will be exciting anchors to this scientific program. Peter Basser will kick off the scientific program Sunday evening with the Lauterbur Lecture and David Brunner follows with the NIBIB New Horizons lecture on Tuesday. Ellen Grant will close the meeting with the Mansfield Lecture on Thursday afternoon to bring the focus full circle around the clinical needs for our work. And in the middle of it all is the relatively recently introduced Presidential Lecture (Wednesday morning). For this, Dr. Eric Betzig will present his first-hand account of how a 500-year-old imaging method was revolutionized in about a decade. Dr. Betzig shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions to methodology for super-resolution optical microscopy.
All in all, meeting planning is going extremely well; perfect, in fact, except for the unprecedented bushfires in New South Wales, accelerating global warming and the spread of a deadly new virus. So, let me take a minute to address these. First of all, thank you to all who contributed to the wildfire charities linked to on our website and elsewhere (see https://www.ismrm.org/20m/. Hint: there is still need…). Thankfully, rain has helped manage these fires, and we are optimistic that they can be fully controlled in the next 2 and ½ months, and hope the habitat can start the natural recovery process.
Second is the related and pervasive issue of the sustainability of our meeting and limiting our Society’s carbon footprint. Most ascribe the unprecedented fires to the record heat and dryness in Australia of the last few years (see http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/history/temperature/ for an impressive graphic), and directly implicate a changing ocean temperature pattern in the Indian Ocean. Of course, the effect of man-made carbon emissions is considered a prime driver. As many of you have pointed out, holding the meeting in Sydney is not the minimal solution for transportation-associated carbon emission. This is clearly the year in which this factor officially enters our site selection calculus (which begins about 8 years prior to the meeting). We are, however committed to diverse locations, including our rotation between N. America, Europe and Asia. Between the ISMRM and SMRT, we expect almost 1000 Australians at the meeting whose reduced travel constitutes a small silver lining in the transportation impact.
This year is also the start of what I believe will be a worldwide shift to incorporating carbon emissions into the cost of doing business. We have asked for, and are facilitating, a voluntary carbon offset purchase as part of the meeting registration. Any economist will tell you that failure to include the societal costs within the goods of a polluting industry is a significant aggravating factor. Namely, if the paint factory has to pay to clean up the river, they will be considerably more careful. Greenhouse gasses are clearly a pollutant, and carbon offsets are the best tool we have identified to fulfill this first step. I encourage you to purchase these offsets, and if you believe that they are insufficient, purchase two and make your travel carbon negative. I think worldwide research institutions should step up and reimburse this as a part of doing business. Thus, I am planning to submit my offset purchase as part of my travel costs, and I encourage others to do so as well. Next year, thanks to changing international airline regulations, it will be automatically included in the airfare.
I do not mean to imply that carbon offsets are the only step that is required to bring our activities into sustainability, but just the first step. It is also true they have multiple issues. Firstly, it’s a new and largely unregulated area with the possibility of the funds going to poorly targeted projects. My impression is that the offset industry is maturing to more scientifically and economically motivated targets. And, of course, offsets are much criticized for being the equivalent to throwing trash out your car window and then paying someone to clean it up. Why not just skip the offending action? Of course, for us this means skipping (or vastly reshaping) our annual meeting. That is not off the table and is a topic for our newly formed Ad Hoc Committee on Sustainability. We already have many virtual study group meetings, and I hope to start experimenting with a virtual workshop soon. But we need to conduct these experiments prior to large-scale changes in the annual meeting structure.
Additionally, we have supported and encouraged our Central Office’s efforts to improve our sustainability over the years through actions such as the minimization of printed material (and its accompanying shipping impact), as well as elimination of the program book and the conference bag. Additionally, we now prioritize the use of venues that are environmentally accredited (e.g. thru the LEEDs certification program) and carefully consider staff travel needs. See https://www.ismrm.org/20m/sustainability/ for a more complete list. In short, global warming is not something we have a ready solution for, but we openly recognize that changes in our practices are coming.
The final (please!) meeting threat is the recent coronavirus outbreak occurring mainly in China but poised to spread. I can assure you that the memory of another coronavirus, the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto just before our annual meeting there, still elicits shivers of fear in the Central Office and others involved in that meeting. While there are many similarities, a lot has been learned since that first SARS victim entered an (unfortunately) positively pressured hospital room in Guangdong in Feb. 2003. Every virus is different, and it still remains to be seen how difficult to manage this one will be. I assure you, we will be monitoring the WHO assessments. But we are encouraged that Sydney (unlike Toronto) is not starting as an epicenter. Also, the Chinese response has been unprecedented. And other countries are establishing controls much faster than they did with SARS. While my sympathies go out to the 100 million people (!) affected by the travel controls in China and those relocated to build the multiple 1000 bed isolation centers being constructed in a matter of days (!), we will likely be among the beneficiaries. Finally, I would also like to ask everyone in our Society to recognize the amazing efforts of Wuhan healthcare providers and other medical staff who saw their New Year’s holiday converted into around-the-clock shifts caring for and containing this outbreak.
I wish you all SAFE travel and fulfillment of your clinical and research duties, and I am looking forward to seeing you all in Sydney.
Lawrence L. Wald, Ph.D.
2019-2020 ISMRM President