30 July 2021 – During the pandemic, we have been forced to change the way we are communicating with each other. Instead of travelling around the globe to talk to each other face to face at conferences and meetings, we had to move our communications into the virtual space. This has worked surprisingly well and without too many hitches in my experience as head of the EMBO Courses & Workshops Programme. I have had days where I have “been” in Japan in the morning and in India at mid-day… and in Chile the next day. Impossible, if you had to travel to these places.
Loads of airmiles, and therefore CO2 emissions, and many days of travel time are saved. It is also possible to drop by at a conference, just to see one or two talks in an area of fringe interest, or to participate fully in your core topic meeting without having to travel. For the EMBO | EMBL Symposia we noted that participation has frequently doubled, so more scientists could attend than before. That is the upside.
The downside is that you cannot just talk intensely with a person over dinner at a conference or committee meeting to learn more about them and their work, and forge collaborations and friendships. There are no more new places to explore, or familiar ones to return to; a lot of the fun in life as a scientist is lost.
To find out what scientists try to gain from going to conferences and how their aims are met by in-person or virtual meetings, we carried out structured interviews with over 30 scientists from all career stages. We will post the results on our webpage in the next few weeks. An important finding was that all interviewees would somehow like to preserve the best of both worlds. The challenge is how to do this!
At EMBO we have learned that we can run committee meetings effectively in a virtual format. We are now planning to hold every second committee meeting virtually to save travel time for everyone as well as CO2 emissions for the planet. But we also realize that we are missing some of the personal interactions and feedback that we are getting when the committee is here at EMBO. The committee members are also missing out on getting to know each other better and working together in a more efficient way. Hence only every second meeting will be virtual. Easy!
But what about the EMBO Courses & Workshops? Which direction should we take here? Our meetings are bottom up; that is scientists apply for and organize them at a place and in a format largely of their choosing. How will the scientists decide, both as participants and organizers, when faced with the choice between virtual and in-person meetings? Currently, most of our meetings have been postponed to 2022, with the expectation to hold them in-person, many are taking place virtually this year, and a few have been cancelled. Are we completely going back to in-person courses and workshops as soon as next year?
Hybrid meetings, for which some of the participants and speakers join remotely, are an option that most of our interviewees postulated as a good compromise to keep the best of both worlds. Interviewees in particular wanted to preserve the inclusiveness of virtual meetings that has allowed many scientists to participate who otherwise could not do so for various reasons. Running a meeting in hybrid format poses new challenges, such as how to deliver it technically, or serving both in-person and virtual participants well. But the hybrid format does not really address the reduction of CO2 emissions.
A significant reduction of CO2 emissions from conferencing can only be achieved by holding meetings virtually. Since EMBO is now offering a platform for efficient, cheap and practical hosting of virtual meetings, should we prescribe a certain number of them?
These are some of the questions that we will have to address in the next months.