18 June 2023
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.