Facilitate Scientific Collaborations

Organize In-Person Scientific Meetings

Though it may seem like meetings that last an entire day or multiple days will be much harder to organize than short meetings, you may want to think of in-person scientific meetings—also called scientific conferences—as just a series of short meetings. However, a scientific conference does require more planning, so leave yourself plenty of time to complete all the necessary preparatory tasks. 

Just like a virtual meeting, you want to start with establishing your goals. Unlike virtual meetings, a scientific meeting usually has multiple goals. Goals may include:

  • Update clinicians and patients/families about research efforts and progress.
  • Provide opportunities to form collaborative agreements and partnerships.
  • Establish connections between patients/families, clinicians, and researchers.
  • Attract and inspire new researchers.
  • Gain the interest of the pharmaceutical industry.
  • Inspire clinicians to become specialists for your disease.

The skills you mastered holding virtual meetings with researchers and other stakeholders will be essential to organizing a scientific conference. However you will also have opportunities to learn about the funding resources, as well as expand your organizational skills. Before the meeting, you can:

  • Find Funding through the NIH: 
    • The NIH offers both R13 Conference Grants and U13 Cooperative Conference Grants to support scientific conferences. 
    • The difference between the grants is the level of involvement of NIH. 
      • The R13 is for meetings that will be planned and conducted without much assistance from NIH staff.
      • The U13 is for events where NIH staff are substantially involved in the planning of and/or conducting the meeting.
    • All domestic organizations that are eligible to receive grants from NIH are eligible to apply for conference grants.
    • Because each IC has its own guidelines and minimum/maximum grant amounts, your group should reach out to appropriate NIH contact for current information about IC-specific priorities and policies.
      • You can apply to more than 1 IC. In fact, applying for co-sponsorship for your conference is encouraged. 
      • You want to establish a relationship with the ICs relevant to your disease before you even begin the process of asking for grant money, if possible. 
      • The NIH Contacts and Special Interests lists the ICs  contacts for R13 and U13 applications. Some of the ICs also provide a brief summary of their funding priorities. 
    • A Letter of Intent (LOI) must be submitted and accepted prior to applying for a grant from each IC. 
      • Although timing is dependent on the IC, most require submission of the LOI at least 6 to 8 weeks prior to grant deadline. 
      • If accepted, you will receive Permission to Submit. Without this, your grant application will not have a home. 
      • Budget information and agenda can be preliminary at this stage.
      • Remember to:
        • Disclose that you are submitting an LOI to more than 1 IC, if that is the case.
        • Acknowledge your primary Institute.
        • Know the R13/U13 funding priorities of each of the ICs where you intend to submit LOI. 
    • When writing the grant, remember to:
      • Read and follow the directions of the specific IC to which you are applying.
      • Address every item in the directions.
      • Look at the ICs’ webpages to understand the focus of each individual IC. In other words, give each institute what they are looking for. 
      • Apply for money to support the conference outside of the NIH and include that you are doing so in the grant application. This is seen as a positive, since the more work you do, the more likely your conference will be a success.
    • If you have not written grant applications before and have an established relationship with a university through a medical researcher or clinician, consider applying through the university. A university will have staff with expertise in writing grants. 
    • The application approval process can take from 6 to 9 months from the date of submission/receipt. 
      • The grant must be received, reviewed, and awarded prior to the conference date. 
      • You are unable to request funds for a conference that has already happened.
    • You can learn more details about the grant eligibility and the application process, including submitting an LOI, using the following NIH resources:
  • Reach out to other potential funders:
    • Larger umbrella nonprofits may offer grants for conferences. 
    • University departments may have funding available.
    • Pharmaceutical companies may be willing to offer an educational grant.
    • Philanthropists and philanthropic organizations may provide grants for conferences.
  • Explore other opportunities to help fund the conference, such as:
    • Exhibitor fees (also known as booth or table fees).
    • Registration fees.
    • Sponsorship opportunity packages that will allow different levels of brand exposure or donor acknowledgement.
  • Decide who to invite: Scientific conferences can be most beneficial to researchers who attend to present their work, receive feedback from colleagues, learn about the focus of other researchers, and build connections. However, your conference can be used to forge collaborations between all the key stakeholders.
    • Your staff, volunteers, members of Board of Directors, and Scientific/Medical Advisory Board can increase the availability of extra hands that may be needed, but can also recharge everyone’s drive. 
    • Patients and their families can provide the patient voice, learn about current research progress, gain a better understanding of their own role in supporting research, and make deeper connections with each other, your team, clinicians, and researchers.
    • Clinicians, both those who are already specialists for your disease as well as those who you hope to interest into becoming specialists may be valuable participants. You may also consider reaching out to medical students, interns, and residents close to the conference venue.
    • Current and potential pharmaceutical Industry Sponsors can be invited to increase their interest in partnering in the therapy development process of your disease. They can attend, exhibit, or lead a session. 
    • Also invite other patient groups, including those supporting your disease and larger umbrella groups. If you are planning on having exhibits during the conference as a way to help cover conference costs, offering reduced rates to other relevant nonprofits is customary. 
    • Remember, unlike smaller meetings, the invitations to scientific meetings should be sent weeks, if not months, in advance.
  • Determine the length of the conference: Planning a longer conference means juggling more speakers, moderators, and panelists, and requires a larger budget, so you may want to start with a shorter conference. You may wish to consider that:
    • Even a conference for a full day will require some people to arrive the day before and leave the day after. 
    • A conference for only half a day may only attract people who do not have to travel far since the cost of travel may not be worth the expected benefit. 
    • If you are planning a half day conference, consider streaming the conference and/or offering a recording (you can also offer these options for longer meetings as well).
    • Researchers and clinicians may find it difficult to attend more than one day of a conference. 
    • You want the sessions well attended so the speakers, moderators, and/or panelists feel the conference was worth their time and energy, so don’t plan for multiple sessions to occur at the same time, if you are not expecting enough people to attend them. 
    • You know your patient and family group better than anyone, so consider what conference length will work best for them. 
    • Don’t plan for more sessions than you will have people to moderate or lead them. You will want to get at least informal confirmation that key researchers and speakers are interested in holding a session at your conference prior to determining the length. 
    • Remember your goals of the scientific conference. 
  • Establish location: After you determine how long your scientific conference will be, it is important to find a good location, both city and venue. 
    •  The conference location and venue may be affected by many factors including the number and size of rooms needed, length of the conference, technological needs of different sessions, ease of accessibility, and specific requirements of outside grants or funding. 
    • If the event is more than 1 day or people are expected to travel from a long distance, the availability of reduced rate accommodations may need to be considered.
  • Choose the date of the conference: It is unlikely that you will find a date that pleases everyone, but you obviously want to choose a date that allows your target audience to attend.
    • The desired venue and key researchers schedules may help narrow the date down. 
    • Dates of established conferences that may compete for the same audience should be avoided.
    • It may be possible to tag a half day conference before or after a larger conference that some of your members, speakers, and/or researchers may already be planning to attend.
    • If people are expected to travel from long distances, consider how weather may impact travel on the dates you are considering.
    • Patients may also find travel in different weather more or less possible, but this consideration is probably already on your radar. 
  • Consider different session formats: Unlike shorter meetings, each session of a conference meeting can follow a different format. The most popular are panel, roundtable, and speakers.
    • A panel discussion, or a panel, is a small group of people (3 to 4) who have gathered to talk about a specific, pre-selected topic. 
      • Panel sessions are usually conducted for an audience and have an open question-and-answer session at the end. 
      • A panel discussion is good for discussing a topic from a multitude of angles at the same time.
      • It usually has a single moderator that guides the discussion by asking the panel members questions or for opinions. 
      • Good panel members are usually experts in their fields, but the point of a panel is to hear multiple points of view on a single topic. For example, a panel of all academic researchers is a very narrow panel. A more balanced panel might have an academic researcher, a member of your group, and a clinician.
    • A roundtable discussion, like a panel, is usually focused on a single topic that is discussed and debated in depth by a relatively small group of people.
      • In general everyone in a roundtable discussion is expected to participate in the discussion; it normally does not have an audience. 
      • The format is good to evaluate options or ideas using the expertise of several professionals. 
      • The moderator should be primarily concerned with guiding the conversation to achieve the goal of the discussion.
    • A presentation provides a way for 1 or 2 speakers to present information about a single topic to an audience.
      • Generally, the speaker(s) give(s) a presentation and the question-and-answer session is facilitated by the moderator. 
      • If there will be more than 1 speaker, the speakers usually have similar views and are colleagues or collaborators.
      • Though a speaker usually takes questions directly from the audience, the moderator can have several questions prepared in case the audience is silent.
  • Firm up the agenda: After you have the location and the date, it is time to finalize the agenda. You will want to send the agenda out in plenty of time for people to register and make travel plans.
    • Get commitments from the session leaders for each session. Agree on topic, session format, and determine preferred times.
    • Require session leaders to submit technological needs.
    • Have substitutes in mind in case a session leader has to cancel close to conference time.
    • Be mindful of time while arranging the schedule.
      • Leave a bit of time between sessions for attendees to go to the restroom, stretch their legs, and allow their minds to move onto a new topic.
      • Build in adequate time if attendees have to change rooms in between sessions. 
      •  Schedule breaks and lunch. A morning and afternoon break as well as a break for lunch can offer time to recharge as well as time to make more one-on-one connections.
      • Providing lunch as part of the conference package can also increase connections and increase attendance of afternoon sessions.
      • Most conferences break for the day prior to the evening meal, but some schedule special small sessions in the evening.
    •  The agenda or program for scientific conference should include:
      • The day(s), time(s), and location(s).
      •  The name and contact information of the facilitator.
      •  The meeting format and topics.
      •  The names of each speaker, panel member, or roundtable participant.
  • Promote the meeting: Preliminary registration and hotel information can be promoted prior to the agenda being finalized, but it is helpful to have the final agenda available before registration begins.
    • Keep the goals of the meeting and intended attendees in mind when considering ways to promote the meeting. 
    • Narrowly target your intended attendees if there will be very limited space.
    • List the upcoming conference on your group website’s event page, but as it gets closer, put it on the home page and any other frequently visited pages as well.
    • Send email blasts and messages through social media and mailings if you want to reach a broader audience.
    • Connect with other groups who may have members or staff interested in attending the meetings.
  •  Follow-up after the meeting: Unlike small meetings, you are likely to come out of a conference with multiple notes, business cards, and participant lists. It is important to organize these while they are still fresh in your mind.
    • If you get a business card, try to quickly jot down who the person is and where you met them (an academic researcher, in the audience at a panel) and any detail that might jog your memory about the conversation.
    •  If you have a conversation with a panel member and do not get a business card or contact information, circle their name on the agenda. Again making short notes or jotting down some keywords can help you remember after the busy conference why this person’s name was important. 
    • It is very important during the conference to keep track of anyone with whom you promised to follow-up. Use a note app on your phone or carry around a small notebook to keep a running list. Make certain to note who they are and what you offered to send them.
    • You can also reach out to a person you did not get to speak with during the meeting. For example, maybe you heard from your staff, group member, or other attendee that a specific person who attended the conference might be interested in joining your group’s effort to develop a treatment or cure.
  • Tips for success:
    • Break down the tasks of planning into doable steps and remember a good leader knows when to delegate and ask for help. 
    • Reach out to other groups who have recently held successful scientific conferences.
    • Always keep your goals in mind throughout the planning process. It is easy to get sidetracked which can lead to trying to accomplish too much in 1 meeting, especially your group’s first conference.
    • Consider starting small by limiting the number of sessions and attendees. A small successful meeting can be followed next year by a larger meeting and may increase funding support. 
    • Live streaming sessions and/or posting recorded sessions on your group’s websites can increase the number of people who will benefit from the conference.
    • Ask speakers and moderators for any slides they will be using in advance and having staff make certain the provided formats are supported by the systems that will be available can help minimize technical problems at time of presentation.
    • Familiarize the speakers and moderators with the technology they will be using before the start of each session, for example, don’t assume they will know how to advance slides, turn on the microphone, work the pointer, etc.


Organize In-Person Scientific Meetings
List of Registries National Institutes of Health Clinical Center (link)
NIH Support for Scientific Conferences (R13 and U13) National Institutes of Health (NIH) (link)
FAQs about R13 grants National Institutes of Health (NIH) (link)
NIH Programs Supporting Collaboration
Office of Advocacy Relations National Cancer Institute (NCI) (link)
Patient/Community Engagement & Health Information National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) (link)
Work with NCATS National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) (link)
Rare Disease Clinical Research Network (RDCRN) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) (link)
RDCRN Funding Information National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) (link)
RDCRN Conference on Clinical Research for Rare Diseases (CCRRD) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) (link)
FDA Critical Path Innovation Meeting
Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADAs) U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (link)
FDA Critical Path Innovation Meetings U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (link)
Video on the Critical Path Innovation Meeting (CPIM) Program U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (link)
Other FDA Meeting Opportunities
Patients Ask FDA U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (link)
Patient Listening Sessions U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (link)