As pandemic restrictions ease and we at Nature Methods begin to travel again, we muse about the highs and lows of in-person and virtual meetings and imagine the future of scientific conferences.
For the Nature Methods editorial team, attending scientific meetings and visiting research institutes is a core part of our jobs. Before the pandemic, each member of our team traveled around four or five times a year, including internationally. Just as meetings enrich the work and affect the careers of those within academia, attending meetings gives editors opportunities to network, hear about cutting-edge research, learn about trends and pain points in a community, discuss papers and our editorial criteria with authors, recruit exciting papers, and give talks about publishing. Put simply, being active members of the scientific community helps us to best serve the needs of our readership.
Our normal travel habits came to a crashing halt along with the rest of the world’s in early 2020 with the global transmission of COVID-19. We adapted alongside the scientific community by going virtual for conferences and relying increasingly on digital platforms to replace in-person communication. While some of the transitions were stunting, at least initially, we came to appreciate many aspects of fully virtual scientific meetings and communication.
Virtual conferences put the world at one’s fingertips from the comfort of home. We loved that recorded talks could be watched multiple times, as schedules allowed, and helped resolve the long-standing problem of concurrent sessions at large conferences. Perhaps the biggest win for virtual conferences, though, is that we felt safe. They allowed us to be out in the world, so to speak, while still sheltering in place and avoiding illness, especially before vaccines were available. Virtual meetings are also more accessible and affordable for a wide range of scientists, making them more inclusive in important ways, such as geographically, as well as for those parenting young children or with disabilities. Finally, we all appreciated that being virtual decreased our journal’s carbon footprint.
Despite these pros, we experienced some undeniable cons—the biggest of which was overall level of engagement. We found it challenging to feel fully immersed in all the presentations while also dealing with things in our homes, and we found it hard to put down our normal work. We could imagine that some researchers would also find it hard to stop their experiments to fully engage with a meeting that they can attend from their home or lab. We also found that the overall networking was dramatically reduced at virtual meetings, even though deliberate efforts were made by organizers of many conferences. Time-zone differences made it challenging to attend all parts of conferences hosted across the globe. Some virtual conferences we attended were marred by technical difficulties. Finally, we were concerned that researchers might worry about presenting unpublished results in a recorded setting.
The upsides of in-person conferences are hard to deny, and now more than two years into the pandemic, fully vaccinated and boosted, we are looking forward to catching up with scientists over coffee or a glass of wine. Small meetings often yield intense and extended conversations on new discoveries or technologies and give experts in a smaller field or subdiscipline opportunities to discuss the needs of the field. These can result in calls for standardization or efforts to promote a technique to a broader community. Larger conferences are great for picking up on larger trends in science; meeting many people at once across disciplines; and finding training and mentorship opportunities, new collaborations and job opportunities.
However, we are more aware than ever about the cons of in-person travel, especially as the world stands today. COVID-19 is still a high-risk disease for many people, and monkeypox and polio outbreaks are making headlines in several spots around the globe. Indeed, we hear that many of our authors and colleagues have caught COVID-19 either at or while traveling to or from scientific meetings.
So can we, as a scientific community, learn from these experiences and improve the future of scientific conferences? We don’t have the answers, but we do have some thoughts. The first is that there are many reasons to be excited about hybrid virtual/in-person conferences. These can retain many of the benefits of virtual conferences in terms of health and safety, accessibility, cost, moderating environmental impact, and the flexibility of listening to talks in different formats. We worry, however, that hybrid conferences will serve to exacerbate existing disparities between resource-rich and other labs, as those the former will more often have the full benefits of attending conferences in person, while the latter may more frequently choose the easier or more affordable virtual option to the detriment of in-person opportunities.
To avoid such biases, we encourage conference organizers to make all kinds of accessibility a top priority for conferences, even when they have a virtual option. These include accommodations for disabilities, childcare options, and ways to help under-represented researchers or researchers from resource-poor settings to attend meetings. We also think that conference organizers, if choosing a hybrid format, have a duty to ensure that virtual attendees feel included and have access to networking opportunities.
We encourage organizers to think hard about where they choose to host meetings, with accessibility and the health and safety of diverse attendees as top priorities. We also hope that conference organizers continue to choose vaccine requirements and mask mandates to prevent the spread of disease.
We have been thrilled to see the creativity of virtual conference organizers in making the most of these events, and we hope that future tool building serves to further bridge the gap between the virtual and in-person conference experience. We hope that attendees who decide to go to conferences in person make the most of what is on offer while there, and those who might fly in to give their presentation only to leave shortly after might instead choose to give their talk virtually.
As scientists we are in a unique position: we can show the world through word and deed that it is possible to host conferences in a way that is thoughtful and safe, and that we are willing to be creative and sometimes compromise to make our actions match our speech in combatting disease spread and climate change. We know that for us these things will be front of mind in the future; we welcome you to join us in reimagining the future of conferences. We look forward to seeing you all again in the near future.
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Conferences then, now, and moving forward. Nat Methods 19, 1013 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41592-022-01620-1