27 January 2022 – Attending scientific conferences is part of a scientist’s life. But in the internet age, where access to information and exchange are rapid and unrestricted, why do scientists still attend conferences? What is the value of conferences for established researchers, and for postdoctoral researchers or PhD students? Do conferences play a role in the development of science? If so, how?
EMBO has been funding international scientific events and adapting them to the changing needs of the scientific community since 1964. The forced sudden switch to virtual conferencing at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago provided the opportunity to reassess once again the values of conferences to identify how different formats satisfy researchers’ needs and expectations – including for the time after the pandemic.
To find out, we interviewed researchers and organizers of scientific events in different continents and surveyed the EMBO Young Investigator Network. The report “The values of scientific conferences in a virtual framework: analysis and practical options” summarizes our findings.
We found that the most valued aspect of conferences is that they allow focussed and intense communication and exchange of scientific knowledge. In-person conferences have the advantages of fostering personal interactions, allowing immediate, personal feedback, learning about unpublished data and experimental details in informal conversations, and starting new collaborations. The main advantages of virtual formats are their easier accessibility and reduced environmental impact. Hybrid formats were envisaged as a combination of the best of both worlds, despite the challenges identified by meeting organizers.
The interviews and survey fed into the decision of EMBO to encourage organizers of practical courses and workshops to experiment with different formats combining in-person and virtual means. EMBO will provide extra funding to cover the additional costs incurred.