Academic Conferences in a Late-stage Pandemic

I recently attended my first in-person only conference, that did not also allow remote participation, since the pandemic started. In many ways it felt good to return to normal. I understand why people want to go back to in-person events.

And, while I think most people involved would agree that running events online was certainly better than cancelling everything during the COVID lock downs, few would call a fully online conference a good experience. While presentations and structured panel discussions can work well online, the social aspects of the conference are hard, if not impossible, to replicate and are an essential part of the event. There is a strong case to be made for in-person events.

But, are we sure we want to go back to running conferences exactly as they were before the pandemic?

How it is effective to have a dual track conference where I’m forever doomed to miss half the talks? When I hear the buzz about a great talk in the other session, why does it make sense that I can’t watch the recording later to see what I missed? Surely we've learnt how to record talks by now? And, by doing so and making the recordings available, we help both on-site people that are interested in two talks scheduled simultaneously and those that are unable to attend in-person.

Similarly, when one of the speakers gets sick, or their flight is cancelled, or their visa denied, and they can’t make it to the event at the last minute, why do we not allow them to present via a video call? Surely we know how to do this by now? And yes, of course, a remote talk is not as good as an in-person talk, but is it not better than no talk? The paper was peer reviewed and judged worth presenting at the conference after all.

And for those that do attend in person, why is there no hint at a masking policy, no suggestion to not attend if you don’t feel well, and no attempt to ensure the meeting rooms or dining venues are well ventilated? Because COVID is over? Perhaps, if you’re healthy and well vaccinated, but endemic is not the same as eradicated and COVID is still a concern for those with certain disabilities, with health problems that affect their immune systems, or for those that care for such people; plus we don’t as yet understand the risks of long COVID. And, even discounting the pandemic, there are enough people coughing and sneezing with colds, flu, and who knows what else. Do we really want to go back to getting a cold multiple times a year from poor air quality at these events? Small changes — improving ventilation and encouraging masking when unwell — will make everyone’s life more pleasant as well as helping protect those that still need to worry about the pandemic.

Finally, of course, climate change. I like travelling. I like going to events in interesting places and making friends and connections with people from all over the world. And these connections, and the resulting collaborations, are not just social. They’re critical for developing ideas and helping the science progress. But, maybe, we also need to balance this against the climate impact of all the travel? And against the accessibility cost and expense of requiring everyone to fly to a conference room half-way around the world? We know how to record and live-stream meetings, and with some effort we can support remote questions and discussion moderately well. I like to travel, and I recognise that an academic career requires that I travel enough to maintain certain connections and collaborations, but should I always need to travel? Fewer long haul flights in my life might not be so terrible.

I’m not arguing that we should go back to online conferences. Far from it.

But there are lessons we should have learned about how to make these events better for all, both in-person and remote, and to reduce the need for travel, that I worry are being missed. If you’re organising a conference, please don’t just go back to the old ways without thinking, but take some time to consider how to use the lessons of the pandemic to make a better event for all.