If your society is serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, you need to keep having online conferences

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(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.  

Extract from a figure in Skiles et al. 2022 showing some demographic differences in attendees at in-person conferences (IPCs) and virtual conferences (VCs).

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.

Stepping up to do the work in an academic society

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Today, the Ecological Society of America is dropping its ballot for a new round of seats on the Governing Board. I’m hoping to serve the society as the VP for Education and Human Resources. If elected, I’ll begin a 3-year term in summer 2021.

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Sign up now for EEB Mentor Match 2020

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Not everything about 2020 is horrible: We’re running EEB Mentor Match again! More than ever this year, undergraduates from under-resourced institutions need guidance to help them into graduate school. Undergraduates in minoritized groups can use a boost from those of us who have cracked the code to get into grad school and get funded.

We are pairing up students seeking support for fellowship and grad school applications with more experienced scientists who have agreed to give support and advice throughout the process. If you’re looking for a mentor, or you’d like to volunteer to be a mentor, please sign up!

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Help us to diversify and humanize biology courses!

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a guest post by Project Biodiversify (www.projectbiodiversify.org @biodiversifying)

We contain multitudes. Our courses should reflect this.

We contain multitudes. Like an ecological niche, a person’s identity is composed of infinite dimensions that make up a person or group’s collective identity space (Figure 1). However, in science – a discipline that has historically valued objective and unbiased contributors – students and researchers often find it difficult to freely express their identities. Being open and valued because of our identities enhances social justice, makes us more productive, and leads to innovation. Yet, because science is embedded in a biased society, our scientific community is often unwelcoming to people from many backgrounds. Women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, and likely many other groups (that we lack data for) are marginalized or underrepresented relative to their global populations. 

Figure 1: A person’s identity, like an ecological niche, is comprised of infinite dimensions, some of which are included in this depiction of “identity space”

Who is doing science goes on to influence the research questions that are pursued and how results are framed. This affects whether marginalized and underrepresented students find science relevant to themselves, which also influences recruitment and retention. For example, biology has been weaponized against marginalized groups throughout history and, in many cases, still is today. Students that see these harmful biases may be alienated from pursuing a career in biology or doing research that is inclusive to their identity. This perpetuates the stereotype of who scientists are and what kind of work they can do, thus contributing to a cycle of exclusion (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Explicit and implicit biases act as a selective force against students from underrepresented groups (akin to stabilizing selection). The low diversity of scientist role models has created the scientist stereotype which further fuels the selective force against students from underrepresented/marginalized backgrounds through mechanisms such as stereotype threat. Made with figures modified from Western Michigan University, Fermi Lab, and Your Article Library.

We need change. 

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Play The Game, or Change The Rules?

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I feel a dilemma — or rather, a tradeoff — when I think about investing time, money, and effort into supporting undergraduates to gain admission to graduate programs.

On one hand, we all know that the system is rigged, such that students who come from whiter and wealthier backgrounds have a huge leg up. Continue reading

Othering ourselves from the research community in teaching-focused institutions

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I started this blog back in 201cough because I was fed up with so many people in the broader research community not understanding what happens in teaching-focused universities. And people who think they have an understanding, but that understanding is filled with stereotypes, bias, and misinformation, driven by a lack of direct personal experience.

I was fed up with being Othered, mostly because of how this translates to the perception of our students. Continue reading

Getting lots of competitive REU applications from URM students

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We did a thing that worked. Maybe you could try it. It’s something that I’ve suggested before, but now some results are in and I’m sharing it with you.

If you’re looking to recruit more undergraduates to your campus for summer research opportunities (and more), listen up.

You know how when drug developers are doing a clinical trial, but they stop the trial early because the results are so promising, that they are ethically bound to give the treatment to everybody in the control group? That’s how I feel about what I’m telling you today.

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Dismantle the pipeline

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The pipeline metaphor has a lot of problems. In STEM careers, people come from a wide range of backgrounds, receive undergraduate and graduate degrees, and are bound for a wide variety of destinations. A path into a STEM career shouldn’t have to be linear, so a pipeline doesn’t make much sense.

However, I get why people like to use the pipeline metaphor. Continue reading

Please focus more on inclusion so that diversity recruitment efforts can work

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I realize that recruiting students from underrepresented groups in STEM is not the most popular broader impact when scientists are actually implementing federally funded research projects. That said, I see a lot of folks putting so much time and effort to recruit minority students. And folks working to provide opportunities to minority students. Continue reading

Recommendations for making science inclusive, and how to talk about it with others

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You’re reading Small Pond Science right now — but a lot of our colleagues don’t read anything resembling a blog. So, for them, I’ve just published a short peer-reviewed paper about how this site addresses a common theme: how to promote equity and inclusion, especially for students in minority-serving institutions.

Think of it as a blog post, but with a lot of useful references in peer-reviewed journals and with the bright and shiny veneer of legitimacy from journal that’s been in print for more than a century. And hopefully fewer typos. Continue reading