Masking the Worry: A man wearing a surgical mask in a Hong Kong street because of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, stops to look at a magazine poster with SARS as its cover story.
Mary Ward-Callan, Managing Director of Technical Activities at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), says that conference planning, particularly in a global economy, always involves a degree of hedging. "A handful of technical conferences get cancelled every year. Before September 11, the reasons were fairly limited, including weather and the economy. Today, unfortunately, we're dealing with more situations, like SARS, that we cannot even anticipate." IEEE financially manages about 300 major events worldwide that are attended by 100 to 20,000 technical professionals. Right now—and not surprisingly—Asia is particularly volatile. Since the first case of SARS was reported, the organization has been forced to cancel ten major events, mostly in China and the Pacific Rim and one in Toronto. Ward-Callan says that although IEEE looks to travel restrictions issued by the World Health Organization to determine what conferences to cancel where, the SARS problem is more complicated than that. "The issue is really one of transit of people. Many of the hubs in Asia are difficult to access today, so even SARS-free areas like Bangkok are impacted. In some cases, people are simply afraid to travel or mingle with people who are traveling from affected areas." When an event is cancelled, IEEE publishes the proceedings and will reschedule when given enough lead time.