Rethinking the science conference format

Papers featured in this bite:

Scientists want virtual meetings to stay after the COVID pandemic

Changing scientific meetings for the better

Trend towards virtual and hybrid conferences may be an effective climate change mitigation strategy

Beyond the carbon footprint: Virtual conferences increase diversity, equity, and inclusion

Conferences and meetings are an integral part of nearly every scientist’s career, primarily as a venue to share research findings and ideas as well as a networking opportunity to grow collaborations and further careers. However, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists internationally ranging disciplines have been rethinking the structure of scientific meetings as many are transitioning to virtual or hybrid formats. 

But what aspects of these virtual meetings are serving us and what parts need to improve? This has been the subject of recent research from gathering various perspectives by surveying scientists and conference attendees to evaluating the carbon footprint of in-person conferences from 2018–19 and more recent virtual conferences to analyzing the meetings’ diversity, equity, and inclusion impacts.

The benefits

Throughout the pandemic, the central concern has been health and safety. Hosting virtual conferences (or simply canceling the meeting as they did for the 239th AAS meeting scheduled for this week) is often opted for to mitigate these risks. But beyond COVID-19 considerations, today’s papers show that virtual or hybrid meetings have other, sometimes overlooked, benefits related to health, equity, and accessibility (not an exhaustive list):

  • Environmental impact
    • Lower carbon footprint and CO2 emissions from travel
    • Lack of sustainability policies for in-person conference (regarding waste management, printed materials and merchandise, food policies, etc)
    • Extreme and unpredictable weather at the in-person venue can put large groups at risk
  • Accessibility
    • Often lowers burden and increases access for marginalized scientists including but not limited to: scientists with disabilities, scientists responsible for childcare or family care, participants from historically underrepresented institutions and groups
    • Online participation may be less intimidating, making it easier to reach out to new people, ask questions, etc
    • Recordings allow for speakers to pre-record (reduces stress for students) and attendees to listen in on talks that are concurrently scheduled or missed due to other obligations
  • Financial burden
    • Travel related expenses are nearly eliminated for participants (especially relevant for students and early career researchers as in-person attendance typically costs thousands of dollars per person, or ≥1 month of grad student salary, making attendance highly dependent on reimbursement policies)
    • Lower cost for the organizers, and a lower registration fee for participants
    • Visa requirements necessary for in-person events are a major hurdle financially and logistically for scientists traveling internationally
  • Health risks
    • Travel is often stressful and exposes participants to various mental and physical health risks
    • In-person participants often have less personal control over the food available and face peer pressure to consume alcohol at post-conference social activities

The drawbacks

Still, the scientific community is far from perfecting the virtual/hybrid meeting format. The studies also point out some notable cons or areas for improvement:

  • Global participation
    • Considerations need to be made regarding synchronous and asynchronous content, as synchronous content can preclude participants spanning time zones to participate
  • Lack of networking and social interaction
    • The biggest challenge based on survey data was less opportunity for networking and social interaction due to lack of impromptu interactions
  • Technological difficulties
    • Access to reliable internet is not always practical or financially feasible for participants attending virtually
    • Screen fatigue can reduce participation, engagement, and access

Recommendations

The main recommendation common among these studies was to host national/international meetings fully or mostly virtually, with regional conferences with smaller in-person attendance being streamed more globally. Further, one paper suggests hosting local meetings at more economical venues like campuses would not only be convenient and affordable, but would allow attendees to engage with the host institution by, for example, touring labs. Overall, the researchers recommend a system of virtual global conferences and local hubs, featuring multi-location in-person components for local members while facilitating digital connections and networking, via Slack, online poster sessions and recorded talks, forums, etc.

More specific guidelines for hosting more equitable conferences regardless of format were also given:

  • Provide open-access conference materials to promote not only access, but also transparency and ease of future citation
  • Increase accessibility for researchers with disabilities (i.e. provide transcripts)
  • Assist attendees with internet access or any financial burden related to required technology (i.e. provide hotspots)
  • Eliminate merchandise, badges, etc which increase the cost and carbon footprint of the conference
  • Limit plastic use, especially food related single-use materials
  • Incorporate “green” events locally, for example beach clean ups
  • Organize public outreach events locally
  • Improve attendee safety with anti-harassment policies, a clear reporting system, and a code of conduct
  • Improve student and early career researcher career development opportunities which highlight underrepresented scientists and foster advocacy within the community
  • Improve equity in chairs and speaker selection criteria and involve more early career scientists throughout the process
  • Organize useful networking opportunities, especially for virtual and hybrid formats

Closing Thoughts

The annual carbon footprint for the “global event industry” – which scientific conferences are a major component of – is the same order of magnitude as that of the entire United States. Opting for a virtual conference format rather than in-person decreases a conference’s environmental impact by a significant amount. One life cycle analysis study found that transitioning from in-person to virtual reduces the meeting’s carbon footprint by 94% and energy use by 90%. With so many conferences going virtual, we, as a scientific community, have an opportunity to rethink what we’ve been doing for decades, and restructure the science meeting format intentionally to serve everyone and promote equity in and access to science for all.


A few Twitter threads with related perspectives and discussions:

https://twitter.com/astrobrianna/status/1456334133089738762


This article was written as a part of our Climate Change Series. We’d love to hear what you would like to see from this initiative – if you have ideas, please let us know in this google form.

Astrobite edited by Suchitra Narayanan

Featured image credit: Dr. Karan Jani, via Twitter

About Olivia Cooper

I'm a second year grad student at UT Austin studying the obscured early universe, specifically the formation and evolution of dusty star-forming galaxies. In undergrad at Smith College, I studied astrophysics and climate change communication. Besides doing science with pretty pictures of distant galaxies, I also like driving to the middle of nowhere to take pretty pictures of our own galaxy!

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