Repeated pattern of wine glasses on a blue background

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More than two-thirds of respondents to a Nature poll say alcohol should not be banned at scientific conferences.

Nearly 1,500 scientists participated in the online poll, which began on 20 December as part of a Nature story about reconsidering the role of alcohol in the scientific workplace (Nature 600, S86–S88; 2021). When asked whether alcohol should be banned at scientific conferences, 68% of those who responded to the self-selecting poll said no, 26% said yes and 6% were not sure.

Respondents mentioned several reasons for wanting to keep alcohol at meetings: the most prominent one was that alcohol is enjoyable and relaxing, and it creates an atmosphere that is more conducive to conversations and networking. The poll invited respondents to submit anonymous comments. One said, “It is a good way to interact and break barriers between senior scientists and students. Some of the best science conversations and collaborations came from scientists sharing a glass of wine over a poster or at a reception or later on in the pub. There is no substitute to that experience.”

Many said that drinking alcohol should be a personal choice, and individual perspectives on drinking should not affect the decisions of others. Several described how a ban would exclude those who enjoy having a drink at conferences. “In my opinion, inclusivity should mean providing a variety of events (including both alcohol and alcohol-free events) so that everyone can participate,” said another.

Respondents mentioned that banning alcohol at scientific conferences would not address the underlying problems of overconsumption of alcohol, poor behaviour of attendees and peer pressure to drink.

Differing perspectives

Just over one in five respondents reported having had a negative experience at a conference related to another attendee’s alcohol consumption, and those who answered yes to this question were much more likely to say that alcohol should be banned. Specifically, 51% of those who thought alcohol should be banned at scientific conferences fell in this group. Only 9% of respondents who thought alcohol should not be banned had had such an experience.

Of those who thought alcohol should be banned from scientific conferences, many agreed that alcohol is unhealthy and impairs scientists’ ability to have productive discussions. Randolph Elble, a pharmacology researcher at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, wrote, “An inebriated senior scientist is not a good example for the next generation. Nor does it support accurate information-sharing. First the science, then the schmoozing.”

However, the primary reasons mentioned for wanting alcohol banned at conferences were to prevent harassment, peer pressure to drink, poor behaviour and negative interactions. Another respondent said, “I think the drinking culture in science perpetuates the ‘boys club’ mentality that you’re not able to network and socialize with your peers if you can’t loosen up and have a drink with others, which isolates and pressures others to drink. Not to mention the countless stories you hear about ECRs [early career researchers] being taken advantage in these types of situations.”

Regardless of whether those surveyed thought alcohol should be banned, many questioned the appropriateness of alcohol at work-related portions of scientific conferences, including poster sessions. “I don’t have a problem with limited alcohol during happy hour or evening reception events when there is more socializing. However, I don’t think it is appropriate during working hours, poster presentations, conference talks, workshops and the like. Work and social hours are distinct from one another,” noted another contributor in the free-text section of the poll.

Because conferences are both professional and social events, organizers must determine where to draw the line with alcohol availability. Several of those surveyed suggested that conference organizers could put less emphasis on alcohol-related events and implement measures to prevent attendees from engaging in inappropriate behavior. For instance, organizers could limit drink tickets to one or two per person per event and not offer a cash bar or ‘bring-your-own’ policy. Respondents also noted that more non-alcoholic options should be available for attendees. As summarized by one anonymous researcher: “Provide more soft-drink options, not just the obligatory orange juice and water, but more interesting options, then people who don’t want alcohol for various reasons can enjoy something they like to drink. The wine is usually terrible anyway!”