CAREER FEATURE

What’s on the agenda for post-pandemic meetings?

Conferences could become more affordable, international and inclusive if virtual events become ‘the new normal’.
Nic Fleming is a science writer based in Bristol, UK.

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A virtual-reality headset on a blue and orange background.

Virtual-reality equipment could become a common tool for scientific conerences.Credit: Getty

Hundreds of conferences have been cancelled, postponed or moved online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical meetings can be replicated virtually to some degree, and this has many benefits, including making access easier for people who have limited budgets, family commitments or disabilities. Some people are also quick to point out that moving meetings online can save attendees time and reduce their carbon emissions. But although video-conferencing technologies are becoming more familiar, critics say that they don’t allow the chance encounters and networking that take place at face-to-face events.

COVID-19 is unlikely to mean the end of physical conferences entirely. Yet many hope, or think, that the global health crisis will change meetings forever. Nature spoke to scientists involved in lockdown conferences, to get their thoughts and advice.

Human Genome Meeting

Live feeds went dead, questions didn’t reach speakers and the virtual cocktail party fell a bit flat. Organizers admit that transforming the Human Genome Meeting (HGM) from a physical to an online event in just three weeks made for a steep learning curve.

Yet, despite some teething troubles, the virtual HGM 2020, which took place on 5–8 April, attracted a larger number and a more diverse mix of attendees than it would have done had it taken place, as previously planned, in Perth, Australia. The Human Genome Organization, which runs the event, seeks to promote international collaboration in genomic research. More than 100 extra individuals signed up to HGM 2020 after it was switched to a virtual meeting because of the pandemic. In the end, more than 500 people attended, from 36 countries.

“Going online made it a truly international meeting,” says lead organizer Alistair Forrest, a molecular geneticist at the University of Western Australia in Perth. “We had delegates from countries including Tanzania, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Russia, South Korea, the United States and European countries — some of whom might not otherwise have been able to come, for financial or childcare reasons.”

Unexpected attendees included Shu, Forrest’s three-year-old daughter, who was heard shouting “Daddy, Daddy” during a session he was chairing, and a cat that walked across the foreground during its owner’s talk. More serious problems included a fault during the live streaming of one of the plenary lectures, issues playing back on-demand videos and delays in questions reaching speakers during some live sessions.

A cocktail party using video-conferencing software failed to replicate the spontaneous social interactions and discussions that might have been expected had it occurred in real life. “It wasn’t a disaster,” says Forrest. “But a Zoom meeting with 40 or so people listening to one person just doesn’t have the same feeling as a party where people form little groups and talk properly over a beer or wine.”

One of the organizers’ greatest concerns was that sponsors and exhibitors would drop out of the virtual event. In the end, only 3 of the 32 did.

It is, as yet, unknown whether HGM 2021 will take place in Tel Aviv, Israel, as planned. Forrest says that if it does, he hopes it will also be possible to take part in it, and other meetings, virtually. “Physical meetings still have an important role,” he says. “But some can’t afford them, some don’t have the freedom or time to travel, and there’s the concern for the environment. I hope that, in future, hybrid meetings, combining physical and online components, will become the norm.”

American Physical Society March Meeting

“It was gut-wrenching, but we came to the conclusion that the risks to attendees and staff, and of bringing contagion to the local community, were just too great,” says Hunter Clemens. He and his colleagues had decided to cancel the March meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) — the largest annual gathering of physicists in the world — late on 29 February, less than 36 hours before it was due to start.

Some of the expected 12,000 attendees from 59 countries were already in the host city of Denver, Colorado, when they heard the news. Around 500 attendees from China had already cancelled their plans owing to US government travel restrictions introduced at the end of January. Others had to make swift changes to their travel plans, or cancel them altogether.

Clemens, who is the APS director of meetings, and his colleagues were not the only ones to react quickly to the rapidly evolving COVID‑19 situation. The next morning, Karen Daniels, at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, used Twitter to suggest holding cancelled APS sessions on soft-matter physics online. Participants organized video-conference replacements with a Google Docs spreadsheet.

Andrea Liu at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, signed up to chair a session on materials that behave as solids but have liquid-like structures; 15 speakers contributed over a 3-hour session. “People spoke; I told them when their time was up; the audience asked questions,” she says. “It worked beautifully. The ability to follow up in the hallway afterwards was missing, but many used the chat feature in Zoom to do that, and it was nice to be able to keep talking to speakers during the other talks.”

Others have also got organized, setting up weekly webinars, uploading talks to YouTube and creating the Virtual APS March Meeting website, to host presentations.

Liu, who is speaker of the APS Council, has long called for more virtual meetings, to reduce carbon emissions and allow participation by those with young children. She thinks that the success of the virtual March meeting will help to overcome some of the opposition she has faced in the past, and will change conferences permanently. “The virtual sessions worked much better than the doubters expected,” she says, “so I’m very optimistic that we will continue to have forms of virtual meetings when this is over.”

Screenshot of attendees in a Zoom meeting.

Physicists attend a virtual machine-learning workshop in June 2020.Credit: Ilya Nemenman

The APS also had to cancel its April meeting on particle and nuclear physics, gravitation and astrophysics, at which some 1,600–1,800 attendees were expected in Washington DC. The society was able to recreate most of the meeting online, with more than 7,000 people signing up to hear more than 700 speakers at around 175 live sessions. The virtual event attracted attendees from 79 countries outside the United States, compared with 28 in 2019.

Clemens thinks a return to physical-only meetings is unlikely. “It made it highly accessible to some folks who could not normally attend, perhaps because they have mobility issues or they can’t afford it,” says Clemens. “Whereas people were experimenting with this before, I think we’re now going to see a virtual component to every live meeting in the future. It’s going to become part of the new normal.”

Advances in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s therapies meeting

When Roger Nitsch and his colleagues on the organizing committee of the joint Advances in Alzheimer’s Therapies and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases (AAT-AD/PD) meeting got together in early 2019, they discussed a concept that would prove prescient. “We had this wild idea that no one should get on planes, everyone should stay at home, and we’d have an entirely virtual meeting,” says Nitsch, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

He and his colleagues were already planning discounts for people travelling by train to the meeting, scheduled for 2–5 April in Vienna, to help combat climate change. To further cut carbon emissions, they also discussed reduced fees for online attendees of a hybrid meeting in 2021 or 2022, as a first step to going fully virtual.

More than 1,500 health-care professionals and scientists were expected to attend the AAT-AD/PD meeting, covering the latest breakthroughs in treatments, research translation, early diagnosis, drug development and clinical trials in the field. But in February, with COVID-19 case numbers rising rapidly, organizers dusted off their embryonic plans for a hybrid meeting. At first it was a back-up, but on 10 March, they decided to go fully virtual.

Audio recordings and slides of more than 250 talks were made available online, as were PDF files of more than 430 posters. Attendees asked questions in online chat rooms. Corporate exhibitors had virtual booths where they could show films. Moderated forums, on topics such as key clinical trials and promising biomarkers, were held live, with attendees asking questions in on-screen text boxes, and could also be viewed later at participants’ leisure.

The ability to access content on demand had been part of the attraction of a hybrid format before COVID-19 struck. “At a physical conference, you might have five or six sessions going on at the same time,” says Nitsch. “Online resources make it easier for people to personalize their meeting.”

The virtual AAT-AD/PD meeting was attended by 1,155 people from 56 countries. Organizers were able to replicate a lot of content online, but there were no chance meetings during meals, coffee breaks or other social events. “We achieved our primary goals of sharing and discussing data and insights on the science of treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” says Nitsch. “What worked less well was the personal-interaction aspect, so our secondary goals of keeping the community together and generating new ideas through unplanned interactions were less well achieved.”

Nitsch thinks that COVID-19 is accelerating an existing trend away from physical-only meetings. “There are a lot of advantages to hybrid meeting formats,” he says, “and we’re going to see more of them in the future. There will still be physical components for those who can travel, but I think purely on-site meetings are a thing of the past.”

HTC Vive Ecosystem Conference

Online meetings don’t have to mean a lack of serendipitous interactions and networking, says David Whelan, chief executive of Immersive VR Education. The company, based in Waterford, Ireland, launched the virtual-reality (VR) system ENGAGE in 2016, as a distance-learning tool.

On 19 March, more than 1,000 people used ENGAGE to log in to the 5th annual HTC Vive Ecosystem Conference, a developer meeting hosted by Taiwanese consumer-electronics group HTC for its Vive VR headset system. A planned physical meeting in Shenzhen, China, was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those who attended in VR were represented on screen by avatars that could interact with other participants in an immersive environment. They watched presentations and took part in tutorials and forums. “At a meeting in VR, if someone is further away, they sound further away, you can raise your hand and ask a question or get up, walk down the corridor, and have private meetings,” says Whelan, who says enquiries about his company’s services have risen tenfold because of COVID-19. “The sensation of actually being there makes a big, big difference.”

At present, ENGAGE meeting rooms hold up to 50 attendees because of limits to computer processing power, but presenters’ avatars can be cloned to appear in multiple virtual spaces simultaneously. Users can attend events using the new generation of standalone VR headsets or headsets connected to computers; they can also watch less immersive live streams on standard monitors.

VR has not caught on as quickly as some had predicted, finding a foothold mainly in groups such as the video-gaming community, and a few uses in design applications. To get the system’s full benefits, users need headsets, computers with relatively fast processors and good Internet connections. The tech-savvy and relatively wealthy are most likely to benefit from scientific meetings in VR, at least in the immediate future.

Because the HTC meeting was designed specifically for VR developers, most attendees probably had access to the hardware needed to get the full experience. This included demonstrations of VR special effects, such as three jet planes flying through the auditorium at the start of the event. One speaker even summoned up giant virtual coronaviruses so attendees could see them up close. But there was no need for alarm: avatars in attendance were all issued with (virtual) protective clothing and face masks.

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