(Also, obviously, online conferences have lower carbon footprints)
Many traditionally in-person scientific meetings have shifted to virtual formats during the COVID-19 pandemic. As an attendee (and organizer) at several virtual conferences over the last two years, I heard a lot of people talking about how they look forward to conferences being “back to normal” next year, or sometime in the future. I will state up front that while I find in-person conferences exhausting (I am an introvert and the non-stop social context is overwhelming), I generally find them both personally and professionally rewarding and can absolutely understand all the reasons other people enjoy them. I also get that a virtual conference is never going to be the same as an in-person meeting. Obviously they are different. But as much as I and others who have traditionally attended and benefitted from in-person conferences might enjoy them and the opportunities they provide, if we are serious about our stated commitments to DEI (and if you or your professional society haven’t at least made a statement to this effect, I’m not sure where you’ve been the last two years) we need to think critically about the “normal” conference model and who it excludes by its design. Now, I am not saying that we have consciously designed conferences to exclude people, but that the system in which they have evolved has resulted in a structure that actively excludes. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to collect data that makes this very clear.
A recent paper by Matthew Skiles and colleagues investigated the impact of the switch to online scientific meetings in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I encourage you to read the paper, but I will highlight some key results here:
Overall attendance was 40-120% higher at virtual meetings, and more international attendees were able to participate, presumably because of lower costs in terms of travel and registration.
Attendance by women increased by 60-260%, and attendance by LGBTQ+ scientists also increased substantially relative to in-person meetings.
More students and postdoctoral researchers were able to attend online meetings, with the proportion of students at virtual meetings more than double that of in-person meetings.
Attendance by researchers at PUIs increased by up to 157%, and attendance by researchers at R2s increased by up to 106%.
Also, the carbon footprint of a single attendee at an in-person meeting (the average of domestic and international attendees) was equivalent to that of >7000 attendees at an online meeting.
Conference attendees that were surveyed about their experiences identified networking and social interactions as one of the greatest challenges of the virtual format. The paper and its supplemental material contain lots of suggestions for overcoming this challenge, including locally organized hubs for attendees. Please read them here. I am sure we can find creative solutions to make virtual networking successful, with the understanding that it is never going to be quite the same as the way we did things at traditional in-person meetings.
To me, these data make clear that online meetings are necessary to include all scientists. We already knew that there were barriers to attendance at in-person meetings, including but not limited to monetary costs, but now we have a solution to dismantling these barriers.
I have heard a lot of arguments for in-person meetings that suggest one of the main benefits are the chats over coffee between sessions or the informal or formal networking that happens over drinks, and that these cannot be replicated virtually. As much as I enjoy chatting science over a beer with my colleagues (and like many, I’ve had collaborations start this way), access to the physical spaces where these conversations occur is limited. It may exclude those who don’t drink (or who don’t want to be in spaces where people are drinking) or those who can’t afford to tag along to the pub for dinner with a group of people interested in a specific research area, and, obviously and importantly, those who can’t physically attend the conference, whether because of financial constraints, caring responsibilities, being immunocompromised during an ongoing pandemic, disabilities that aren’t accommodated by the meeting organizers, or any other reason. Meeting exclusively in person is actively excluding a large proportion of our scientific community. We can’t continue to make attendance at these in-person meetings the price of admission to a successful career in science, when it’s clear that the price is too high for so many.
UPDATE: here’s another great paper by Sally Lowell and colleagues called The Future of Conferences which highlights the need for creative solutions to making conferences sustainable and accessible. I’d also like to point to the Company of Biologists’ Sustainable Conferencing Grants which provide funds to support virtual meeting components.
UPDATE 2: Please read this excellent, much more comprehensive piece by Divya Persaud about conference equity issues: What is the future of conferences? And what should be? Importantly, it covers the issue that virtual meetings are not by default accessible to all, and includes great suggestions and further reading.