9 March 2022 – It was exciting to organize the in-person EMBO Workshop Molecular biology of archaea: from mechanisms to ecology in Vienna in 2018, while having, beyond the science, its sustainability in mind. Inspired by our research on microorganisms in global nitrogen cycling, we focused on reducing the nitrogen footprint, which is a matter of food options. Therefore, we exclusively provided meals with organic vegetarian ingredients that were mostly from regional production.
When we realized that the town of Vienna awarded ‘EcoEvent-plus’ labels to meetings fulfilling sustainability requirements, we became even more ambitious. This label was awarded to the meeting as we fulfilled criteria for waste management and access to the site through public transport and bicycle paths, offered food and drinks in re-usable containers, and avoided promotional materials. Several participants gave feedback such as ‘I didn’t know that Vienna was such a progressive town’. While people seemed to be understanding of the food options, I am sure quite a few rushed out after the evening sessions to get a proper Wiener Schnitzel…
Back then we were rather shy when trying to encourage participants from Europe to take the train instead of an airplane. But this was before the Greta wave. By now, with a higher awareness of personal CO2 footprints of scientists and with experiences from the pandemic, a lot has changed. Many of us have experienced that online or hybrid meetings allow for many more attendants than in-person meetings thus expand the scientific reach and bring more fairness. Organizing an efficient hybrid meeting will need extra effort by the organizer. It will also need the acceptance by the participants, because it may be a new experience for them to travel by train, or to attend online and bear with technical challenges.
I applaud the initiative of EMBO to encourage workshops in a hybrid format by providing extra financial support. This extra money will certainly be needed to rent necessary equipment and get technical support. Even colleagues who are still in doubt about hybrid meetings will hopefully join in (you don’t? – then check out this fun video from a colleague at Radboud University).
It will be an effort to reduce the environmental impact of conferences, but it is still only a small contribution to the transformative change in society that is so urgently needed. But who should lead by example, if not scientists?