How scientific conferences will survive the coronavirus shock

Cartoon showing a presentation to a room full of people to one given to people on a video call.

Illustration by The Project Twins

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Adam Fortais had never attended a virtual conference. Now he’s sold on them — and doesn’t want to go back to conventional, in-person gatherings.

That’s because of his experience of helping to instigate some virtual sessions for the March meeting of the American Physical Society (APS), after the organization cancelled the regular conference at short notice. “If given the option, I think I would almost always choose to do the virtual one,” says Fortais, a physicist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “It just seems better to me in almost all ways.”

Fortais could get his wish. Since the coronavirus spread worldwide in early March, many scientific conferences scheduled for the first half of the year have migrated online, and organizers of meetings due to take place in the second half of 2020 are deciding whether they will go fully or partially virtual. Some researchers hope that the pandemic will finally push scientific societies to embrace a shift towards online conferences — a move that many scientists have long desired for environmental reasons and to allow broader participation.

Scientists with disabilities and parents of young children are just two examples of the researchers who are benefiting from online meetings, says Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Cobb has been cutting back her own air travel since 2017, both to reduce her personal carbon footprint and to blaze a trail towards structural change in her discipline. She hopes the changes as a result of the pandemic will last long after it has ended. “In five years, we’ll be in a remarkably different place.”

Crowds at the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting

The annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union is one of the world’s largest scientific conferences. Attendance figures for 2019 reached close to 28,000.Credit: marekuliasz/Shutterstock

But other researchers say that in-person conferences will once again dominate after the threat of COVID-19 has faded. For them, in-person meetings offer too many opportunities that virtual meetings can’t replicate.

Greener gatherings

Estimates of the carbon cost of conferences vary, but range from 0.5 to 2 or more tonnes of carbon dioxide per participant in travel alone. If each of the estimated 7.8 million researchers in the world travelled to one conference every year, the lower bound of the annual carbon emissions would be roughly equivalent to those of some small nations.

Before the pandemic, many scientific societies had already begun exploring how to make virtual participation available for researchers who were unable or unwilling to travel. When the crisis hit, it forced them to speed up existing discussions and timelines. “We were going to start out with smaller meetings,” says Hunter Clemens, director of meetings at the APS. Instead, the society scrambled to move its annual April meeting online in a matter of weeks. Despite the accelerated timeline, Clemens says, the virtual meeting was “something amazing”.

That gathering, which took place on 18–21 April, drew more than 7,000 registrants — about four times more than its in-person attendance in a normal year, says Clemens. And almost all of them — around 96% — logged on to the conference at some point. The virtual sessions, on average, had higher attendance than in-person ones at standard APS April conferences.

Attendees say that virtual meetings are better in certain respects. Submitting questions online through moderated chats, for example, can help graduate students to feel less intimidated and allow scientists to formulate better queries. At the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in April, the ability of the audience to vote on questions in real time “resulted in a higher quality of question”, says Emily Costa, a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Adam Tidball, a physicist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, saw another benefit when he presented at the APS virtual April meeting. “I found that the networking was a lot better than in-person,” says Tidball. The conference provided attendees with a sort of matchmaking app for networking, with which users could read other scientists’ biographies and reach out to them to initiate a conversation or schedule a time to meet virtually.

The economics of online meetings are different from those of conventional ones. Clemens estimates that the virtual April meeting cost only about 45% of the equivalent in-person conference, although the society lost money on this year’s meeting because it had to make the shift so quickly and didn’t charge for attendance. The American Astronomical Society has had more time to plan its online-only meeting in June, and the cost to attend is around 60% cheaper than it was for its January meeting.

But the shift to online meetings could shrink one of the major revenue streams for societies, some of which draw a large fraction of their operating budget from their annual meeting. And if societies move to hold a dual online and in-person meeting, that could drive up costs because the meeting would require more staff, and both a venue and an online platform.

Researchers who have attended virtual meetings say that the meetings have several important downsides. Poster presentations can fall flat in an online space, and it’s difficult to have serendipitous encounters between sessions, which is where a lot of collaboration normally happens. Social scientist Marzena Świgoń says that unofficial chats during conferences are the most important way that scientists share knowledge with each other. “I think that virtual conferences are only temporary,” says Świgoń, who is at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, Poland. “As soon as the threat passes, conferences will return in their traditional form.”

Anthony Watkinson, an information scientist at CIBER Research in Newbury, UK, who has co-authored papers with Świgoń, is similarly sceptical of the permanence of virtual conferences. He says that UK and US researchers overwhelmingly report that in-person interactions are necessary for forging relationships.

Among many scientists, however, there is a clear mandate for at least providing the option to participate virtually. In an informal survey conducted by Nature, roughly 80% of 486 respondents said they thought that some meetings should continue to be held virtually, at least in some capacity, after the pandemic has subsided.

Now that the idea of a virtual meeting is less abstract, Cobb says, people might be more willing to open up conferences, meetings and seminars to remote participation. “I do honestly believe there will be some remnants of this that resonate on for many years.”

Nature 582, 166-167 (2020)

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