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I wonder why most academic conferences don't make their budget publicly available.

Making budgets publicly available could help explain high conference fees (which attendees often complain about), help other conference organizers, receive feedback to be able to improve, improve transparency towards the taxpayers since they fund most of academic research, explicitly mention what the private sponsors are and to what extent they are involved (e.g. to detect conflict of interests), etc.

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    Why would they? – Cape Code Nov 5 '15 at 17:49
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    Asking too many questions like this is a good way to get invited / volunteered to join the organizing committee for a conference, at which point you will learn far more about these issues than you ever wanted to know. – Nate Eldredge Nov 5 '15 at 18:32
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    The downvotes are telling you that lack of financial information about conference organization is not a pressing problem for academia and that working on changing this is not a good use of anyone's time. I don't see why that should make you sad. Instead, you should be happy to hear that the world has one less problem than you thought it did. :-) – Dan Romik Nov 5 '15 at 20:49
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    I also don't understand the down votes. The question is ok, it has an answer between "because nobody cares" and "because it's not anyone else's business". – Cape Code Nov 6 '15 at 7:38
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    @CapeCode it's a concept called transparency – Ander Biguri Nov 6 '15 at 13:34
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I don't think there's any universal policy behind this. One reason is lack of interest: in many cases I'd bet nobody involved has thought much about the issue, the world isn't clamoring for the budget, and publicly releasing it would take at least a little work. Inertia is a common reason for not doing things.

Another reason is to avoid arguments. The main thing people would do with a publicly available budget is criticize it. Some criticisms would be based on ignorance of the options and constraints, while others would amount to saying "more should be spent on my favorite things, and less on the things I don't care about" (which is not so useful if there's no consensus as to which aspects are more valuable). E.g., is money for snacks essential or wasteful? What if they are overpriced hotel snacks, but there's no other option without moving to a venue that is worse overall? What about a reception with alcohol? Basically, imagine repeating every discussion the organizers had about the budget, but with an unmanageably large group arguing, and with random trolls from the internet chiming in.

In general, I would assume it's not an attempt to preserve secrets or disguise unpopular spending. If the conference is funded by a grant, then the funding agency saw a budget. If it's funded by registration fees, then participants at least know how large those fees are and can compare them with other conferences.

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    I foresee vast wars at medical conferences between the people who are and are not claiming CME. – Fomite Nov 5 '15 at 19:00
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    "there's no consensus as to which aspects are more valuable" - Indeed. A particularly nasty discussion would be between those students that are on low travel budgets or even self-funded and those from "rich" labs that see conferences as nice paid vacations :) – xLeitix Nov 5 '15 at 19:05
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    I think the last sentence is a good point. Conference participants are in some sense purchasing a product. In general, you don't see sellers providing a cost accounting to justify the prices they ask. They charge what they think the market will bear, and consumers decide if that price makes the product worth buying for them, considering their other options. Consumers really don't care how the producer sets a price, nor how the price relates to the costs. – Nate Eldredge Nov 5 '15 at 20:48
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    Furthermore, for many conferences I've been associated with, the budget walks a very fine line - you have venue-required minimums to get the number of rooms you think you need. If you get fewer attendees, you lose money (which normally is not possible to allow), if you get more attendees than expected you 'make' money, but that usually gets plowed back into the next iteration of the conference. Indeed, the OP should actually help plan a conference. – Jon Custer Nov 5 '15 at 21:45
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    @FranckDernoncourt: In that case I would group the funding agency as a producer, not a consumer. As mentioned, the funding agency will have had some oversight over the budget, and the budget may be available to taxpayers via freedom-of-information laws. If you really want to see some conference budgets, you could go that route. – Nate Eldredge Nov 6 '15 at 16:32
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I can't answer directly the titular question, but, having served in the organizing committee of a couple of conferences, I can try to explain the high conference fees.

Let's take as example a medium-sized 5-day conference with about 500 participants. The main expense is the venue: a quality venue with a capacity of 500 participants, with several rooms for parallel sessions, can cost around (200-250) k€ for five days, probably more for high-quality venues in several countries (e.g. large 5-star hotels in the US). This makes already (400-600) € per participant.

Then, you have to serve lunches and coffee breaks. This, depending on the service, can cost around (20-30) €/day. For five days, this adds another (100-150) € to the conference fees.

Then there are the conference gadgets and the proceedings. These are not too expensive if the proceedings are edited voluntarily by the organizers -- let's consider around 50 €/participants for both the gadgets and the proceedings.

Now, what about inviting a few speakers? Paying the travel, lodging and conference expenses of, say, five speakers can cost around 20 k€, which divided among 500 participants, adds another 40 €/participant.

Finally, there is the support for young researchers, and this can add another 50 €/participant.

So, we are already in the (700-900) € range. But, wait, am I missing something? Sure, how could I forget? Of course, you might need to pay some extra-personnel, depending on how many services you need to outsource (conference secretariat, side events, etc.). These can quickly add another bunch of euros for participants. And if you also want to the social dinner, add another bunch.

You see that we have quickly arrived to conference fees in the (800-1000) € range.

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    Exactly. And every single one of these line items could be discussed, and seriously so. The entire budget is already discussed in great depth by the conference organizers. The very last thing they want is another six months of discussions of the exact same topics after the conference, if they publish the budget. – Stephan Kolassa Nov 5 '15 at 22:51
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    What this answer does not explain is the huge price differences between conferences across fields. In math, I never saw a conference fee this high, for example. – Boris Bukh Nov 6 '15 at 2:22
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    This. Even the cost of the snack service is often shocking if you haven't been involved in this sort of thing before. And "space for parallel sessions" is a killer: most of us can think of a facility where we could find one big room for merely a lot of money, but if you need two big ones and three medium sized one? No choice but to go with the built to purpose venues, and they know what the traffic will bear. – dmckee Nov 6 '15 at 3:14
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    +1 This answer is great, but it misses one crucial component. At least in my discipline (CS), good conferences have sponsors (Oracle, Google, MS), that cover part of those expenses. – Alexandros Nov 6 '15 at 10:08
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    @Raphael as a rule of thumb, in most cities the top-range venues will be the only ones that have large enough facilities for a major conference. If you have 50 people, then you have all kinds of options from budget to luxury; but for large events it may well be impossible to find any facilities that aren't run by some five-star hotel chain. – Peteris Nov 8 '15 at 9:59
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There are two basic reasons that I know of:

First, we have better things to do with our time than putting together a detailed financial report along with necessary explanations.

Second, the information is not useful to anyone except a potential conference organizer, and the variation across institutions in terms of what one has to pay for is considerable.

For example, some universities charge for room usage, and some don't; some require you to use official catering facilities, and some don't. Sometimes you can get a student assistant for free, and sometimes you have to pay. Costs vary according to venue so much that a having someone else's budget is useless. What might be useful for a neophyte organizer is a summary of things that they might not think of (such as huge catering charges for coffee breaks; administrative fees for processing credit card payments; ludicrous room rental charges; surprise, you have to pay extra to get projectors in those rooms).

  • Concise and comprehensive answer +1. – Cape Code Nov 6 '15 at 7:40
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My experience is that the conference budget is typically presented and discussed in the business meeting (which is of course open to all conference participants). So there is no mystery about the registration fees: all participants see precisely where the money goes.

Moreover, conference organisers are usually very happy to share conference budgets with anyone who is e.g. organising the same conference in the future.

  • Do you mean "open to all conference attendees", instead of organisers? – Mangara Nov 7 '15 at 19:05
  • @Mangara: Yes, of course. – Jukka Suomela Nov 7 '15 at 20:15
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Game Theory Answer v.0.1

Suppose that two rival groups, the Mathematician's Guild Of Firenze ("a") and the Firenze Guild of Mathematicians ("b") both get granted some money and use of a building to hold a conference on game theory mathematics. Each wants to attract Da Vinci to their conference and each wants to ruin the other, as this town is too small to have enough funding for two rival guilds doing much the same mathematics as one another.

Now if (a) publish their budget in full then (b) can calculate how much money they need to borrow to decorate the conference hall with paintings by Michaelangelo, provide lavish conference food, and any other comparable nonsense thought likely to make their conference more popular and ruin the other lot. Alternatively, (b) can publish their budget with enough exaggerations in it to provoke (a) to outspend the published budget with borrowed money and ruin themselves.

Personaly, I prefer the approach taken by Da Vinci, which was to lock himself in his room, write everything backwards just in case, and stay away from the likes of a and b.

  • Funny, but not really an answer. Reality is much more complex, as anybody involved in organizing a conference can attest. – vonbrand Nov 8 '15 at 19:27

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