The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world in many ways. Due to the risk of in-person events, industries that rely on these events have had to rapidly adjust. Conferences and meetings, including academic conferences, are in the same situation. Previously, these conferences hosted up to tens of thousands of participants. Most conferences have either rescheduled or moved to a virtual platform. While COVID-19 has been devastating in many aspects, one silver lining may be the emergence of virtual conferences. This format has saved millions of tons of carbon, is more accessible, and is cost efficient. Here, we argue that virtual conferences should continue.
Generally, conferences are composed of a few key elements. Select researchers present talks on their recent work and receive feedback from an audience in the form of questions. Additionally, a larger number of researchers present their work in a poster format in sessions where other researchers wander through a sea of these posters and interact with scientists whose work they find interesting. Poster sessions are often combined with another crucial aspect of conferences: the social mixer. In this event, conference attendees network with other researchers in a relaxed setting. The benefits of these conferences are broad. Conferences provide learning opportunities, where academics can immerse themselves in presenting and learning from others in their field.
Many conference attendees claim this feedback is invaluable to their work, and thus that conference attendance is beneficial for career advancement. Every researcher’s Curriculum Vitae includes sections for talks and posters they have given and presented at conferences. In addition to rounding out resumes, conferences are opportunities for early career researchers to network with more senior researchers, demonstrate their scientific prowess, and gain favor for future positions. Many researchers also see conferences as opportunities to interact with colleagues and friends, and look forward to spending a few days talking science with them away from their daily lives.
There are considerable costs to conferences, however. Attendees travel from all over the world for these meetings. In 2017, 186,000 conference goers traveled to Japan alone. At the 2011 American Association of Geographers meeting, 82% of attendees traveled over 1,000 miles and 17% travelled over 5,000 miles. The 2019 national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Orlando had 12,000 people in attendance, with over 27% coming from international destinations. The 2017 American Society for Microbiology national meeting — the most prominent microbiology conference — had an estimated 10,000 attendees. The examples go on and on.
The carbon production from each conference is astronomical. University College London estimated that its own academic work-related travel produced almost 2 million tons of CO2 annually. A separate study estimated that each researcher produces 0.5-2 tons of CO2 each year from travel; if all 7.8 million academics worldwide went to a conference, it would equal the carbon production of a small country.
Conferences are also money sinks. It is estimated that all costs involved in going to a conference (travel, conference fees, lodging) can reach $2,000 per person for a national conference and even more for an international conference. Generalizing this for every researcher, conference expenses run north of $15.5 billion per year and an average international conference can cost upwards of $200 million to operate.
It is little wonder why COVID-19 has caused a dramatic shift in the conference industry, and each event has taken a different approach to moving online. There has been a steep learning curve, but attendees and organizers have been almost uniformly optimistic considering the circumstances. In an online poll administered by Nature, 82% of the 485 respondents were willing to attend an online conference in the future. The American Association for Cancer Research and American Physical Society’s annual meetings had a 300% increase in participation compared to their conventional 2019 conferences, highlighting the appeal of increased accessibility. The International Conference on Cell and Experimental Biology successfully held their first annual conference virtually in December of 2020. Other conferences were creative and provided incentives to potential registrants. Experimental Biology is discounting registration fees by up to 40% for their April 2021 virtual conference.
The virtual format can provide many advantages compared to in-person conferences. Recordings allow attendees to take in more sessions than they might otherwise be able to attend. Poster sessions might be reimagined as “lightning” talks. As online conferences evolve, these events will become more refined and include better features such as randomized chat rooms to facilitate networking. They might also become more accessible to researchers working with limited funding or visa restrictions. At Botany 2020, participation from international researchers grew from 35 countries represented in 2019 to 45 countries in the 2020 virtual format. Parents of small children may welcome fewer days away from home requiring a childcare solution.
While virtual conferences have many benefits, challenges and criticisms remain. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to endure “Zoom fatigue,” and the thought of sitting in front of a computer for a days-long conference can be taxing. Many researchers enjoy retreating from their daily routines and immersing themselves in learning and conversing with others in the field. As mentioned previously, conferences are key networking events for early career researchers and online conferences do not fully replicate this. Camaraderie with colleagues is thoroughly missing in online conferences. Many who have attended their work’s online happy hour can attest to how difficult it is to have a relaxed chat with multiple people over zoom.
There are also downstream effects beyond researchers themselves. Service industry workers in hotels and restaurants near convention locations rely on the income, and any permanent loss of major yearly events could destabilize livelihoods. Virtual conferences can also present accessibility challenges to those who may be less tech-savvy or lack the necessary internet bandwidth. Finally, the time difference between attendees can be drastic, creating scheduling issues.
What is the future of virtual conferences? More than likely, academic conferences will return in person after the pandemic has dissipated. However, the benefits of virtual conferences are clear and have opened opportunities not previously available in conventional in-person meetings. A strategic solution would be to establish a virtual and in-person hybrid format. In this format, attendees may choose to attend personally or virtually. Virtual attendees pay discounted registration fees, watch the seminars live and ask questions, and participate in hybrid networking or exclusively virtual networking sessions. This hybrid format would increase accessibility and participation, decrease cost of travel, open up new networking opportunities, and help reduce carbon emissions.
While solely virtual conferences are undesirable due to low quality of networking and technology accessibility issues, the forced temporary nature of virtual conferences due to the COVID-19 pandemic has provided food for thought. A hybrid virtual and in-person format will both help to reduce travel related carbon emissions and open more opportunities to academics who may not always be able to spend the time and money conferences require. Taking advantage of the optimization process of digitizing meetings brought on by the pandemic will serve to improve communication and learning amongst the academic community and should be utilized going forward.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.