Let’s break the cliquey conference circuit

Physical events are not going away but they must open up and embrace the best of the digital world, says Jim Woodgett

July 23, 2020
celebrity on red carpet, crowd behind barriers looking excited at seeing her.
Source: Getty/iStock montage

Scientific meetings used to be relatively small, somewhat amateurish get-togethers of people interested in the very latest findings in various subfields. But, as Henry Ford II noted, “small cars, small profits; big cars…”

And so, over the past 25 years, many conferences morphed into larger, professionally run annual events, attendance of which was almost expected – until the Sars-CoV-2 virus came along, forcing the cancellation or postponement of thousands of in-person meetings.

Now, established meeting organisers, such as Keystone Symposia, are running virtual “eSymposia”. Smaller players are taking innovative steps as well, and, with the suspension of in-person conferences likely to endure for at least another six months, it is perhaps a good time to re-evaluate the role and worth of scientific gatherings.

Few would argue that science and scientists don’t benefit from the interactions encouraged by face-to-face meetings. The advantages go far beyond the communication of new and previously unreleased data: they include spontaneous interactions, socialisation, direct feedback and, for many, an opportunity to present their work at a poster session – not to mention experiencing a new city or country. Scientists clearly value these opportunities, or we wouldn’t have so many meetings. Or do they?

The logic of profit-maximisation has been adopted not only by professional meeting planners but also by scientific societies, which have come to rely on their annual meetings to cross-subsidise their journals and keep down membership fees. Meeting attendance is an eligible expense on grants, after all, and it is notable that the entities that have stuck to their smaller-scale roots now face uncertain futures; some will have to restructure or close.

As with any event, achieving higher attendance means bringing in stars: leaders in the field, with name-recognition. And so emerged the “circuit”, whereby a defined clique of scientific celebrities present at 10 or more meetings in a season, delivering talks that, while polished and often entertaining, tend to cover the same topic and relay largely published information. Moreover, these speakers sometimes stay at the event for just a day or two, minimising the audience’s opportunity to interact with them. And since there are only half a dozen venues in the US that can accommodate meetings of 20,000+ people, even the novelty of travelling to a new city is increasingly rare.

To be fair, there are examples of speakers being selected on the basis of their submitted abstracts. And, yes, there are often “last minute” short talks that give young researchers a brief stage upon which to discuss their work. But attention is on the central attractions – as well as the non-scientific distractions for which certain meetings have developed a reputation: skiing, beaches or amusement parks, for instance.

Virtual conferences do not provide the same experience even as the in-person meetings that lack such perks. It is not possible to replicate online all the above-mentioned advantages of physical events; moreover, we are social animals – and also creatures of habit. To proclaim the death of physical events would be silly. But attendees of virtual events are spared physical meetings’ expense, carbon footprints and, in a world of increasing xenophobia, border hassles – not to mention the risk of sexual or physical harassment. And perhaps, as we experiment with new forms of virtual gatherings and become more familiar with them, the better ideas will persist well after the virus has disappeared from the news, becoming incorporated into hybrid meetings that offer the best of each world.

One such idea might be science-casting. Just as podcasts have democratised discussion and delivery of both popular and niche information, the use of YouTube and similar sites for dissemination of research findings has become ever more mainstream, especially among a generation that grew up on internet-based media sharing. This is an incredibly efficient means of convenient, carbon-free communication.

A downside of asynchronous video is the lack of interactivity. Platforms such as WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Go-To Meetings restore question periods and the sense of shared experience. There is also an opportunity for someone to develop new solutions specifically tailored to scientific rather than business meetings, adding features such as virtual poster sessions and chat rooms for networking.

A significant fraction of scientific meetings is dedicated to technical advancements. In the current hiatus, user networks have evolved to facilitate exchange of practical developments and expertise. This decentralised model may also be particularly attractive to industry sponsorship – providing an incentivised, specialised audience.

Notably, all of these modalities can be made accessible to anyone and can be self-organised and inclusive. But this has to be by design and not assumed.

So let’s not surrender again to the comfortable, performative circuits that came to dominate many pre-coronavirus scientific symposia. Let’s, instead, blend the focused intimacy of smaller meetings with video-enabled accessibility. And let’s hope that our learned research societies can find alternative income sources.

Jim Woodgett is director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Toronto.

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