New initiatives offer childcare solutions to traveling scientists

As dual-career academics and parents of a 2-year-old, Zermarie Deacon and her husband negotiate in advance which conferences each will attend, so that the other can stay at home and take care of the child. Deacon, who is an associate professor in the Department of Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma, was hoping to attend last November’s Gender Summit in Washington D.C.—but her husband was already booked for travel at that time. So Deacon looked into taking the child with her, thinking she could leave her in child care for a few hours while she attended sessions. The conference organizers provided information about a local nanny service, but it turned out to be “astronomically expensive, to the point where it wasn’t worth it to me to incur that kind of cost and to travel, so I ended up not attending,” Deacon says. “It was a very difficult decision.”

Dealing with children while attending conferences is a problem that many scientists—women and men—must negotiate as they balance careers with parenthood. Some professional societies, funders, and institutions are trying to step up, working hard to find solutions to the conference-childcare problem. So far, the institutional solutions they’ve come up with aren’t perfect, and may never be, so parents are continuing to do what they’ve always done: Whatever they have to do to make things work out. “I think the world has changed a lot,” but there is still a long way to go, Deacon says.

A common problem

If publications and grants are the bread and butter of a scientific career, conferences are the marmalade. You can get by if you don’t go—maybe—but your career won’t be as tasty. The price of missing out is high, especially early in your career.

“The networking that happens at conferences is crucial for job hunting, research collaboration, and … ultimately co-authorship and grant applications. These are all factors that count for advancement in academia, such that conference attendance is really a crucial and basic activity for getting a career off the ground,” Curt Rice, a professor in the Department of Language and Linguistics at The Arctic University of Norway (formally the University of Tromsø), writes to Science Careers in an e-mail. (Rice is also chair of Norway’s Committee for Gender Balance in Research) Conferences are also one of the standard ways of getting your work out to its target audience—and that’s key to the kind of visibility and recognition that scientists need for their careers to grow, says Donna Dean, a retired senior adviser for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) who now works as an executive consultant for the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and a career consultant for the American Chemical Society (ACS).

The problem is worse for women than it is for men. Childbearing, nursing, and persistent gender-role stereotypes—coupled with the fact that female academics are less likely than male academics to have stay-at-home partners—all contribute to making it harder for women to travel to conferences than it is for men. In a 2000 survey of postdoctoral fellows in the biological and physical sciences at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, 45% of married women with children reported that they hadn’t presented research at national conferences the previous year, compared to 24% of all other postdocs.

But men are grappling with the issue, too. “Men, of course, also want to be engaged fathers and to have time to be with their young children, and this can also affect their early careers,” Rice writes. “We need to structure career activities like conferences in ways that allow those colleagues who are in the midst of these two major events (having children and starting research careers) to engage as fully as possible.”

Onsite child care

One of the solutions that conference organizers and professional societies have developed is the provision of child care at the conference site. “Several large conferences now either offer childcare or help arrange that,” Rice writes.

The ACS, for example, offers all-day child care services (dubbed “Camp ACS”) for 2-to-16 year olds, available free of charge to all parent attendees. Other conference organizers, including the American College of Rheumatology, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), several special interest groups of the Association for Computing Machinery in the United States, and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) have provided similar child- care services at their meetings.

Luca Tamagnone, an associate professor at the University of Torino Medical School in Italy who made use of the child care services at both AACR and EMBO meetings, tells Science Careers that the benefits can be great. As his sons got older, he started taking them along to conferences, one at a time, when they turned 8. “In my specific case, it was not really the fact that I was unable to find an alternative option … It was actually a deliberate choice to … share with them those days, and also an opportunity to meet other children from other countries and … get trained in using their English,” he says. “Yes, I had to skip one or two occasions of social exchange … but I think the free time was also valuable in the sense that it was spent with my son,” Tamagnone says. “That was an acceptable compromise.”

Onsite child care remains rare, however, because it’s costly to organize, in dollars and person-hours. That makes it hard for smaller organizations and smaller conferences. The logistics are complex, especially in the United States, where the law and regulations regarding child care and liability insurance are particularly stringent. Even in Europe, organizations like EMBO—which offered onsite child care for 3 years, with funding from the Elsevier Foundation and the Robert Bosch Stiftung—found that there was too little interest to continue the program. Each year, fewer than a dozen children attended the EMBO child-care facility out of 1500 meeting participants. There are not enough parents using the service “to also make it worthwhile to hire so many people to then take care of the kids,” says Gerlind Wallon, EMBO deputy director and program manager..

Why don’t parents use these services more when they are offered? Sometimes, as in Deacon’s case, the care itself is expensive, especially in the United States, and parents have to factor in additional travel and accommodation costs. “Both the cost issue and also perhaps the fact that scientists at an earlier stage may have more pressure [to make] the most of the meeting experience” may dissuade them from bringing children, Tamagnone says, adding that smaller children “may not be happy to stay in child care for so long.”

At EMBO’s Young Investigator program meetings, it facilitates extra rooms for mothers of babies or accompanying parents and will arrange babysitting services upon individual request, Wallon says. In the United States, while they do not foot the bill for such services, the National Science Foundation and NIH have been encouraging the conference organizers they fund to identify local child-care options.

Grants for child care

A more recent option is child-care grants that help parents pay for their own child-care solutions. “People just need flexibility, and they are the best ones to determine what will allow them to get the most out of a conference,” says Ylann Schemm, program director at The Elsevier Foundation.

As reviewed in a recent book co-authored by Dean and AWIS executive director Janet Koster, between 2008 and 2010, the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) offered grants to scientists to give them that flexibility when attending its annual meetings. The program, which was funded with seed money from the Elsevier Foundation, allowed applicants to contract for at-home or onsite child care, ask a relative to stay with the kids, send the children to stay with relatives, or invite a caretaker (and the child) to accompany them to the meeting. Interest in the program picked up in its third year, when the number of requests and grants more than doubled to 33 grantees and 44 applicants. The ASCB is seeking external funding so that it can continue the program.

The U.S. Association for Computing Machinery’s  Special Interest Group on Software Engineering, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the U.K. Royal Society have all offered various flavors of conference child-care grants.

What about my institution?

Not many institutions offer support for traveling parents, but a few do. Starting in 2008, the Elsevier Foundation supported a program at UC Irvine, allowing it to offer travel awards of up to $1000 to help its tenure-track assistant professors and recently tenured associate professors cover the cost of bringing their toddlers (and also perhaps caregivers) to a meeting, or arranging additional child care at home. The career advantages of the program were clear: 76 faculty received grants over 3 years. Just over half attended the conference as invited speakers, 27% as panel members, and 14% as poster presenters. After the conferences, 82% of the awardees reported that they had been able to promote their research, 56% said they had benefited from networking, 47% had received research feedback, 44% had fostered collaborations, and 41% had developed new projects. UC Irvine has since decided to extend its program through to 2014 using campus funds.

Other U.S. institutions, including Princeton University, Stanford University, and Harvard University, have established similar grant programs. In Europe, especially the Nordic countries, some universities supplement conference travel costs for women who are nursing, Rice writes.

Still, as a whole, “probably the universities are behind the curve on this,” Dean says. “Part of the issue is getting institutions and organizations to recognize that there is a need.”

In the United States, this is about to change as a result of probably the most important development in the history of conference child care. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget recently issued new regulations saying that scientists presenting their research at conferences can claim related child care expenses on their federal grants. “Every major university [and] nonprofit research institution in the U.S.—almost all of them have federal grants [to] support their research, so with time they are going to have to develop their policies” to reflect the new regulations, Dean says. The new regulations also allow the organizers of conferences funded by federal grants to claim the costs of identifying (but not providing) local child-care options.

Growing your own

Scientist parents enjoy better support today than they did a few years ago, but institutional solutions are imperfect at best. The logistics of taking along dependents and caregivers are often complicated, and unless you have relatives or close friends living nearby, ad hoc child-care arrangements are usually hard to make.

So most parents just make do, handing off children to one another as they navigate a conference together—assuming they attend the same conferences—or being creative in scheduling their professional and family commitments. “That’s a creative thing, and part of it is figuring out, ‘Where do I need to be? How am I going to be there? How am I going to handle it?’ ” Dean says. For instance, one partner “may decide that particular week not to do the really critical experiments that are going to keep him 12 hours in the lab,” which could make it possible to care for the kids while the other parent travels. “For all the people who are grappling with this issue from their personal perspective, you have to think like a scientist … ‘OK, if this doesn’t work, this is what I’ll do’ … [and be] figuring out options A, B, C, D, E,” Dean says.

Increasingly, blogs, LinkedIn groups, and discussion groups within professional disciplines provide spaces in which conference attendees can advise each other on how to solve their child-care issues, Dean says. Such networking and personal problem-solving “can be very powerful,” she adds. Some conference organizers have started forum discussions with a view to promoting onsite child-care sharing.

As scientist parents become more visible at conferences, they, too, will help change the culture. Deacon, who participates in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma, describes a colleague who took her child into conference sessions, giving her toys and books so that she could play quietly and read. She once saw a woman carry her 2-year-old child onto a panel for a panel discussion.

At some meetings, “I still think there is some discomfort around this idea that as a woman or maybe a man attending this professional meeting, it’s required that I bring my child not for fun and not for vacation … but as a … person who’s actually attending in a professional capacity,” Deacon says. “We’re not quite open to discussing that, except for the few daring souls that say … ‘We don’t care, we’re doing whatever we can do,’” Deacon says. “That goes a long way … towards changing the world if people are open and start becoming accepting of perhaps women bringing younger children with them, or even fathers.”

Many thanks also to Elizabeth Pollitzer, director of / and organizer of the , for her help in researching this article.

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