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Scientific conferences during a pandemic: better or worse?

Conferences are a crucial part of scientific research; a chance to network, see what work is going on in your field and stock up on free pens. That was a conference pre-COVID19. Now every conference has moved online, replacing physical venues with Zoom calls. For some this transition has been easy, especially for small conferences. For larger international conferences, which had thousands of people attending, it has been a challenge to migrate to digital events

The need to socially distance and limit both local and international travel has made in-person conferences impossible, at least for the foreseeable future. The threat of multiple waves means that for now the way we host events has changed. There are some obvious downsides to this, but there are also some benefits, and it’s not the first time we have experienced this kind of change.

Things are always changing 

A month before the U.K lockdown began in March I was in Scotland at a conference and one of the topics of discussion was coronavirus and how conferences would change if there was a lockdown. I was talking with a professor who had been attending conferences for decades. He pointed out that even if conferences did change they would survive because they had already changed just over ten years ago – during the 2008 financial crash.

He described some of the conferences he had been to pre-2008 and they sounded extravagant; one of which was an all-inclusive trip to the Bahamas. Then the conferences which took place in the wake of the financial crisis were more subdued; usually smaller and held locally rather than internationally. Obviously, the current healthcare crisis is made harder due to travel restrictions and risk of infection. But the point was; conferences are a crucial part of science and no matter what form they take they will always exist – scientists can be very stubborn.

As we try to find new ways of working and move conferences online to adapt to the current situation, the question is: how do digital conferences compare to physical ones?

Digital conferences: The good vs the bad

Personally, I enjoy giving presentations but I realise I am in the minority; most people dread standing up in front of a crowd. For these people moving online has made life easier; but that is not the only benefit. Firstly, less travel is better for the environment; fewer international conferences means reduced air travel and therefore reduced emissions. Plus less travel also saves people a lot of time; no more booking tickets, traveling via train or plane, then getting to a hotel, and only then heading to the conference.

Now you can stay at home, make a cup of tea, and click “join” and you’re at the conference. Going digital also makes conferences more accessible. People who struggled to travel because of personal circumstances such as family commitments or physical disabilities can now take part without additional stress.

But going digital also has its drawbacks. Even if you don’t enjoy giving presentations having your audience in front of you lets you collect real-time feedback. When everyone is hidden or on mute you don’t know if people are laughing at your joke or if they’ve decide to use your talk as opportunity to visit the bathroom. Likewise, physical poster sessions and networking were enjoyable; it was fun to walk about and read about peoples work and discuss it with them in person. I have been to several digital posters session but they just aren’t the same; and while zoom offers breakout rooms they aren’t as easy as chatting with someone over lunch. 

Part of being a good scientist is learning to deal with the unexpected; this year that means learning to deal with a global pandemic. Moving forward who knows what impact this will have on how we work, but for now it appears conferences will be held online.

When the risk of infection decreases or a vaccine is developed then physical conferences might return, eventually. But moving online has had its own unforeseen benefits, some of which far outweigh any downsides. Maybe online conferences will become the norm one day physical conferences will be seen as old fashioned. 

Featured image is under Unsplash License and free to use.

About the Author
  • Steven Gibney 0000-0002-3309-1522

    Steve is currently a member of the EPSRC CDT in Advanced Therapeutics and Nanomedicines at the University of Nottingham. He uses bioelectronics to design new treatments and diagnostic devices. When he's away from the lab he can usually be found lost in the woods or up a mountain. Twitter: @Steve_Gibney

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