Organizations like Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research (PRIM&R) schedule national conferences up to five years in advance. These sessions take time to organize and book space. They look for cities that can handle thousands of guests and offer some interesting attractions. Geographical fairness — so no one region is forever left out — also is a consideration.
But what they haven’t had to worry about as much, until recently, is what the destination state’s legislature is doing.
The 2017 PRIM&R conference was scheduled for November in San Antonio, TX. All was well until the Texas legislature passed legislation in May 2017 that allows adoption providers to turn away potential parents, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) families and others, based on the adoption providers’ religious beliefs.
“There are some people we just know because we’ve been in touch with some constituents, who are choosing not to come to Texas out of their conscience,” says Elisa Hurley, PhD, executive director of PRIM&R in Boston. Hurley spoke about the controversy a week before the conference.
Hurley wrote a letter to PRIM&R attendees, explaining how PRIM&R is nondiscriminatory and decided to continue to hold the conference in Texas, mostly because of the logistics involving the difficulty in finding another venue at short notice.
The Texas adoption bill and its potential for discrimination prompted the state of California to issue a travel ban against Texas, which meant researchers and IRB staff and members from the state’s public universities were unable to attend the PRIM&R conference.
“The biggest impact is on the Cal State and University of California university systems,” Hurley says. “Many have research programs, and those affiliated with state universities are probably the largest contingent of ours.”
This type of controversy is relatively new, from PRIM&R’s perspective.
“We’ve always generally kept an eye on issues around human rights and discrimination when picking conference sites,” Hurley says. “It’s been in the background.”
But, starting in recent years, PRIM&R has paid closer attention to state legislation that can result in discrimination.
“What prompted us to keep a closer eye on what’s happening legislatively around LGBTQ issues was the bathroom bill that passed in North Carolina,” she says.
“The bathroom bill passed at a time when a sister organization was having meetings there, and the federal government would not sponsor federal employees to go to North Carolina,” Hurley recalls. “So, we watched what was happening there with meetings and realized this might be happening more in the future, and we would need to keep an eye on what’s happening legislatively that might be antithetical to our principles and those of our constituents.”
When the Texas legislature was considering the adoption bill, PRIM&R stayed in touch with the city of San Antonio and its visitor’s bureau. Both were lobbying state legislators to not pass the legislation, Hurley says.
“Then, in the spring, the adoption legislation had gone through, and that prompted California to add Texas to a list of states it was banning state-sponsored travel to,” she says.
“To summarize, our awareness and our desire to keep our eye on these sorts of things really came to the forefront after what happened in North Carolina,” she explains. “We looked at what was on legislation in states where we book meetings.”
The PRIM&R board discussed the organization’s options after the Texas bill passed and investigated options for moving the meeting. The organization decided to keep it in San Antonio, but to make it clear that Texas’ actions did not reflect the organization’s core values.
“It was a difficult decision to remain in San Antonio and it was not made lightly, but after a lot of consideration and weighing what would be the cost for our constituency to change locations at that late date,” Hurley says.
“For what it is worth, we received almost unanimous positive feedback on the statement that went out to our PRIM&R constituents,” she adds.
Also, PRIM&R has enhanced its online conference options so California researchers and IRBs can attend some sessions virtually.
“Our virtual meeting is much larger than it has ever been,” Hurley says. “We’re live-streaming the event.”
The idea is to make PRIM&R accessible to as many people as possible, even if they cannot attend in person. Moving forward, PRIM&R will investigate potential locations, looking for places that are supportive of the organization’s values, but this will be very challenging, Hurley notes.
“One thing that makes it challenging is that San Antonio fought as hard as anybody against this legislation in Texas,” she says. “You can have very progressive municipalities that fit in more conservative states.”
Also, assessing a state’s legislative action is only one challenging factor in selecting meeting sites. PRIM&R still must find locations that are attractive to its constituents and can support a large conference. Also, there should be some geographical fairness so people in some states do not always have to travel across the country to attend.
“Selecting meeting locations for all organizations is probably going to be a little more involved and fraught going forward, given the current state of things,” Hurley says.