Submitting More Competitive Session Proposals—Providing Clarity on the Expectations for Speaker Sector Diversity

By Leigh Ann Burns Naas posted 02-20-2020 15:26


Communique 2020 Final Issue Masthead

Several years back, as a member of the Scientific Program Committee (SPC), I wrote an article for the Communiqué titled “Submitting More Competitive Session Proposals.” In general, the article encouraged session developers to include speakers from multiple job sectors and to provide more detail in the overarching and individual speaker abstracts. SOT members took these recommendations to heart; the next year, the proposals received by the SPC were more in line with what was desired, and each subsequent year was better than the one before. But over time, the self-correcting pendulum can overswing in the other direction, which has happened with SOT Annual Meeting session proposals—especially in relation to speaker sector diversity. This article provides insight into the current thinking of the SPC regarding the balance of speakers from different sectors of toxicology.

The speakers for a 2019 Scientific Session stand and sit behind a podium and long table on a daisIn recent years, the SPC Chairs have received feedback on how being too strict in adherence to the Society’s request that each session have speakers from a diversity of sectors can hamstring a good proposal. Even further, some members have shared that they have not submitted proposals for sessions that they thought would be strong and relevant because they were not able to identify a speaker from a missing sector and assumed the proposal would not score as a result. The reality, however, is different. Simply put, there will be times when it doesn’t make sense to include a speaker from a specific job sector, and session proposers shouldn’t be expected to include someone from that sector in order to have a highly scored and successful proposal. The SPC Chairs (current and past) have been discussing this misconception and want to convey that it’s OK to do what makes sense—your proposal can still score strongly! 

Summary of the keys for a strong session proposal as outlined in the articleFor example, in 2017, SOT accepted a Continuing Education (CE) course titled “Detecting Cancer Risk in Drugs: Design, Conduct, and Interpretation of Carcinogenicity Studies for Regulatory Approval.” Of the five course speakers, three were from the US Food and Drug Administration, one was an industry consultant, and one was from a contract research organization. There were no speakers from academia or the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Based on the abstract and the desired outcome of the course, the proposed speaker list was appropriate, as this is not a topic in which academic scientists usually engage and the US EPA does not regulate drugs. This course, as proposed and developed, was strongly regarded and was even recorded to become part of the SOT CEd-Tox: Continuing Education Online library so that individuals can take the course anytime and from anywhere.

Similarly, there have been CE courses and Symposium and Workshop Sessions on the testing of biopharmaceuticals, which is an important topic, but one that is highly applied, so it was understandable that speakers would come mainly from industry, government, and the regulatory sector. During the upcoming 2020 Annual Meeting in Anaheim, a Regional Interest Session will focus on the toxicological research associated with wildfires. This is of great importance to California, and while other US states may experience wildfires, they don’t have the same research and regulatory infrastructure as California. As a result, most of the presenters for this session will be from California Environmental Protection Agency.

So what, you ask, is the current thinking regarding session proposals? It isn’t all that different from before, but we hope the pendulum will settle back in the middle. Here are the key points to consider:

  • The overall session abstract should be sufficiently detailed and clear to allow each SPC member to understand the importance of the topic and how each speaker’s presentation is related to the others to fully convey the overall topic.
  • Individual session speakers should be identified and their abstracts should be sufficiently detailed to allow the SPC members to understand what will be presented and how it relates to the proposal topic.
  • Including speakers from various job sectors should be considered when developing the speaker list. This is intended to improve topic coverage, address multiple viewpoints that exist, appeal to a wider audience, and avoid “groupthink.” However, it is recognized that there will be times when including someone from each job sector simply isn’t appropriate for the topic. In those cases, the “rules” can be relaxed to do what makes sense for the topic and the session.