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Low-carbon, virtual science conference tries to recreate social buzz

The organizers of an international biology meeting asked psychologists to assess their attempts at retaining the advantages of traditional conferences.

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A Lufthansa aircraft takes off from Munich Airport.

Flying to conferences creates a large carbon footprint.Credit: Matthias Balk/dpa

Hundreds of attendees watched circadian biologist Paolo Sassone-Corsi give his keynote talk at a scientific meeting last month. But barely one-fifth of them were sitting in the lecture hall in Munich, Germany, where he spoke. The others were viewing from virtual hubs across 18 time zones.

The five-hour ‘pop-up’ conference on 18 November was an experiment to test the feasibility of making scientific meetings virtual, in a bid to cut the heavy carbon footprints created by attendees’ air travel.

Organizers of academic and other international meetings have begun experimenting with ways to offset or cut down on carbon emissions, but the November meeting of the European Biological Rhythms Society (EBRS) is one of the first to take a systematic approach to retaining a key benefit of traditional meetings: networking and face-to-face contact. Its organizers invited psychologists to evaluate whether technology and organizational techniques can help to aid interaction and networking, for example by enabling seamless discussion across different locations, and encouraging participants at all sites to hold social events.

“We are now busy analysing the outcome, but at first glance it seems to have been more successful than I had dared hope,” says Martha Merrow, a circadian biologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, who organized the mostly virtual meeting. Participants, who joined from 32 countries, said there were advantages beyond simply cutting carbon — for instance, parents who might find it difficult to arrange travel could attend. The EBRS says it will continue experimenting with the approach.

Virtual movement

The experiment comes in a year of worldwide activism on climate change, and as scientists in many fields have started to think hard about the carbon footprints of their globetrotting activities. “Our work tends to be dominated by international meetings and flights,” says Corinne Le Queré, a climate scientist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, UK. “We need to have a plan to reduce emissions by carrying out our work differently.”

In 2015, Le Queré co-authored one of the first carbon-reduction strategies created for a research institute. It recommended that scientists monitor the carbon output of their professional activities, avoid travelling to meetings unnecessarily and prioritize those with only small carbon footprints.

A cameraman films a conference talk, while technicians watch video feed from virtual hubs.

The virtual conference broadcast talks from Munich to 5 major hubs and 69 small ones around the world.Credit: Veronika Kallinger/Mediaschool Bayern

Le Queré says that the Tyndall Centre has since tested ways to reduce travel, such as using video-conferencing, and many meetings are trying similar online approaches. In December 2018, palaeontologists Vicente Crespo at the La Plata Museum in Argentina and Esther Manzanares at the University of Valencia, Spain, organized a fully online conference. Participants uploaded video recordings of lectures and field trips, along with posters and presentation slides. More than 370 professional and amateur palaeontologists from 41 countries participated, engaging in written online discussions over a two-week period. The number of attendees and the quality of presentations exceeded expectations, says Crespo.

Fluent discussions

The EBRS meeting is a more advanced experiment, says Le Queré, because of the inclusion of psychologists.

For Merrow, who was sensitized by the climate-strike movement, the pop-up conference was a way to test the waters: she chose a hot topic — the influence of the circadian rhythm on metabolism — for which there was lots of expertise in the region around Munich, where all the talks were given.

Sasonne-Corsi, who is based at the University of California, Irvine, was in Europe anyway when he gave the plenary lecture. Six short talks were repeated before and after his speech to ensure that participants in all the time zones could listen to them, whether in the morning or late evening. Three of the speakers travelled to Munich by train or car, and Merrow bought carbon offsets to compensate for the drive.

Invited speakers were enthusiastic, she says. “The scientific endeavour has become too big — we all travel to too many meetings, and I get very tired,” says Sassone-Corsi, who travels intercontinentally around ten times a year.

The meeting was broadcast to five virtual hubs through high-quality, two-way video systems at universities in Tel Aviv, Israel; Zurich, Switzerland; Boston, Massachusetts; Tokyo; and Porto Alegre in Brazil. Another 69 hubs were set up for small groups of researchers to watch one-way video broadcasts and send questions or comments through Twitter.

“It was possible to have fluent scientific discussions,” says Merrow, and some satellite groups organized local social events after the meeting. In total, at least 450 people attended the conference and nearly 60% joined in through Twitter interactive hubs. About 10% more people attended the virtual meeting than went to the EBRS’s main annual conference in August in Lyon, France.

Psychological needs

Merrow invited LMU psychologist Anne Frenzel to assess the success of the approach, and the two are still analysing feedback from participants collected at the virtual conferenceand the Lyon meeting.

Aside from cutting emissions, participants mentioned advantages of the virtual meeting including not losing time and energy to travel, and students being able to attend for free. Scientists in Brazil and Israel mentioned that it released them from the bureaucracy involved in booking flights to attend overseas conferences.

“This is not only about carbon footprints — it also offers a huge opportunity to think innovatively about how scientific discussions take place,” says Merrow.

Other conferences have tried to offset emissions by buying carbon credits. In 2020, the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) will for the first time offset the travel emissions of its thousands of participants, among other sustainability measures.

But not all agree that this is the way forward. “Offsetting is not the way for the long-term future because it doesn’t change travel behaviour,” says Susanne Buiter, a researcher at the Geological Survey of Norway in Trondheim and chair of the EGU meeting’s programme committee. “At the moment, we think a large annual meeting is still important for networking, and we are feeling our way to see what can be done.”

Merrow agrees: “Our community will probably always need one big annual conference to forge personal connections and collaborations.”

Nature 577, 13 (2020)

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