Over the past couple of years, we’ve been getting used to the idea of conferences happening through a screen. Research published recently in Nature Sustainability has found there are advantages for many people, with inclusivity increasing and the carbon footprint decreasing.
Matthew Skiles and colleagues examined attendance at the annual International Conferences on Learning Representations (ICLR), the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the North American Membrane Society (NAMS) conferences that switched to an online model. They also looked at some meetings that have only ever been online.
The team found that attendance went up, particularly from international audiences. They state in a press release that cost was a significant barrier to attending an in-person conference: “The cost of in-person attendance for scientists from Africa to several recent conferences was on average between 80% and 250% of their country’s annual per person gross domestic product, compared with approximately 3% of per capita gross domestic product for U.S. participants.”
Access to travel documents is another barrier that the scientists highlighted. For instance, one woman in the study who is a mother of small children said that she did not have the needed documents to travel outside her country, keeping her from attending conferences around the world. “She could network more than she has ever networked in the last year, and that never would have happened with an in-person conference,” said co-author Manish Kumar.
They also bring up the matter of time. In addition to cost, in-person events also require tremendous investments in time. These events require travel, often last multiple days and take up all of the attendees’ time while there. This can be a challenge, particularly for women. For many younger workers, this period of life tends to fall around the time many are having children. This makes getting away to conferences challenging for women, said co-author Kasey Faust, who also has two young children.
According to the study, women’s participation in virtual conferences increased by 253% compared with previous in-person conferences. And when looking at academia, attendance by students and postdoctoral scholars increased as much as 344%.
The scale of the climate impact is also staggering. The researchers estimate that just a single attendee of an in-person conference in 2019, averaged over the conferences analysed, had the same environmental footprint as 7,000 virtual conference attendees.
While virtual conferences have, by many measures, been successful, they’re not entirely popular. Many people have felt a lack of engagement and missed in-person networking. Approximately 75% of attendees at one scientific conference and 96% at another said they preferred in-person networking and that virtual sessions felt inauthentic and contrived.
There will be an appetite for in-person meetings when possible. In some societies, the annual conferences are major source of income. Would a hybrid conference be an answer to improve inclusivity? Possibly, but Pedro de Bruyckere and Frederik Anseel both have reservations, pointing out that those who virtually attend have less opportunity to network. There is a danger in the future of replacing impassable barriers with second-class opportunities for previously excluded scientists.
Skiles, M., Yang, E., Reshef, O., Muñoz, D.R., Cintron, D., Lind, M.L., Rush, A., Calleja, P.P., Nerenberg, R., Armani, A., M. Faust, K., Kumar, M., 2021. Conference demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nat Sustain. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00823-2