In-person academic conferences must resume this autumn

Some people will still prefer virtual conferences, but a hybrid approach would allow part of the in-person synergy to return, says Sheldon Jacobson 

June 14, 2021
Conference audience illustrating return to in-person events via  hybrid mode
Source: iStock

Academic conferences managed a remarkably quick pivot to virtual platforms last year. But a trickier task lies ahead: reviving the in-person gatherings that are so essential to scholarly life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent announcement that those who are fully vaccinated are free to take off their masks and re-engage with the wider community has prompted universities and colleges that banned travel during the pandemic to begin relaxing their edicts. And many faculty – particularly those who are vaccinated – are eager to re-engage with colleagues and collaborators in person. 

However, very few in-person faculty meetings are scheduled for the summer. Indeed, many organisers of meetings planned for this autumn have announced they have no intention of ditching online-only formats, with professional in-person meetings for faculty unlikely to restart until at least 2022.

I understand that some academics will agree that it is still too soon to restart mass events, in which individuals are often herded into small, poorly ventilated meeting rooms – or, worse, cavernous lecture halls packed with hundreds of delegates. But others will strongly disagree.

Just as universities have successfully delivered classes during the past year, with students attending both in person and remotely, professional organisations can split the difference of opinion by transitioning to hybrid meetings. Academics happy with virtual meetings can attend remotely, without incurring travel costs, interrupting their regular schedules or subjecting themselves to any residual risk of infection. Those hungry for in-person interactions – including myself and, I believe, thousands more – can opt to attend such events on-site, at least within the US.

With more than one year of high-bandwidth remote-communication experience behind them, professional societies are well positioned to facilitate hybrid meetings. Videoconferencing technology will allow those attending virtually to reach out to in-person attendees, restoking the synergy that is derived from personal interactions during meetings.

Shifting a planned virtual meeting to a hybrid event in a matter a weeks is, of course, unfeasible. However, events scheduled for this autumn could make this kind of transition. After all, they made the opposite transition within a similar time frame when the pandemic hit. Hotels and conference centres have open schedules and are eager to host professional meetings. Working with open schedules also makes it easy for them to provide flexible accommodation at favourable rates, with many already hosting hundreds of wedding parties postponed throughout the pandemic.

The one risk to such a transition is the uncertainty over the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines. Public health personnel anticipate that a booster shot will be needed at some point in the future, while new Covid-19 variants may prove to be at least partially resistant to existing vaccines. Even a local surge could cause nightmares for event organisers – and if significant numbers of people remain unwilling to be vaccinated, such outbreaks will occur.

Moreover, large professional meetings would be fertile grounds for them – and the last thing that either a professional meeting or a conference venue would want is to become an epicentre of new infections. Such publicity would not be favourable to either party, and the associated financial liabilities would be significant. Still, with more than 50 per cent of American adults already fully vaccinated, there is reason to be confident that such scenarios would not arise at US-only events.

Moreover, just as about 500 US colleges and universities have made student vaccination mandatory for those returning to campus, similar stipulations could be placed on those wanting to attend an in-person conference. Professional organisations sponsoring meetings should rely on an honour system, whereby if a member misrepresents their immunisation status and is found to be the genesis of infections, appropriate professional conduct disciplinary actions could be taken. And even if younger scholars might be most keen to get away from their laptop and meet their peers face to face once again, organisations could limit in-person attendance to those who have been a member for a specified number of years – and who are therefore perhaps most likely to feel bound by its honour system.

Everything should be on the table for keeping in-person attendees as safe as possible. But the return of in-person meetings sooner or later is inevitable: virtual meetings filled this void, but their intellectual vibrancy is no substitute for that of in-person meetings. The transition through hybrid meetings can be the first step to this return to the greatly missed old normal.    

Sheldon H. Jacobson is a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

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