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Is this the future of science conferences? If we are serious about climate action, we must surely go virtual.

COVID-19 has forced a change in how we deliver events. The move online has posed significant challenges in delivering content of equal value and quality as face-to-face meetings.

December 04, 2020

COVID-19 has forced a change in how we deliver events. The move online has posed significant challenges in delivering content of equal value and quality as face-to-face mmeetings. It has also reaped plenty of rewards - accessibility, inclusivity, and decreased environmental impact.

At the Earlham Institute, our Scientific Training Team has been hard at work ensuring our world-leading courses can be delivered virtually. The same has been true of conferences.

Careful planning and adaptation meant COVID did not get in the way of the inaugural UK Conference of Computational Biology & Bioinformatics, the annual Single Cell Symposium or EI Innovate. Many other events worldwide have pushed ahead with similar online offerings.

With vaccines soon to be rolled out, will the ‘return to normal’ that so many have yearned for since the onset of this pandemic mean the resumption of in-person conferences, scientific meetings and training courses? We spoke to EI staff and event delegates to hear their views.

Is this the future of science events?

Image: Is this the future of science events? A screenshot of participants at a recent EI science training course.
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Overall, I feel the course worked really well online and actually might even prefer it to in-person versions of the course. All online lectures and demonstrations worked seamlessly. Thank you for kindly organising the course.

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Arguing in favour of...

1. "We are not killing the planet"

Of all the positive impacts of virtual events mentioned by EI staff, a “reduced carbon footprint” was among the most frequent.

Mitigating climate change is one of the more popular impacts attached to research grants today, yet travelling thousands of miles - multiple times each year - has been a seemingly contradictory expectation on scientists. Flying round the world to present or hear about the latest research would be essential for most. Pre-COVID, the same was true of traversing the country for meetings, many of which last mere hours.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, not to mention facing up to the inherent hypocrisy, unnecessary travel has to end. The events of the past year have shown that many of these trips were completely unnecessary all along.

Interestingly, EI’s Business Development & Impact Team hosted several workshops earlier this year. Before COVID-19, participants showed a preference for a face-to-face workshop, 55% saying they preferred that format with only 7% in favour of an online session. Yet after the first online workshop, the numbers flipped around completely. The biggest swing was towards a preference for online workshops, with those stating a preference for online, or no preference, outnumbering those who would prefer a face to face offering by 5:1.

The environmental benefits of virtual events apply to all areas of work. Saskia Hervey, Public Affairs Adviser at EI, explained: “From my point of view, I love the online access I have now to events in Parliament. I no longer need to travel to London to attend them. I hope the legacy of CV will be that these events remain accessible remotely.”

2. "More inclusive"

Virtual events are, quite simply, democratising.

Travelling thousands of miles across the world to attend a conference is inhibitory to many. Software Engineer Alice Minotto points out that “this is particularly an issue for young women with young children, as well researchers from countries or institutions with less funding availability.”

Research Assistant Michelle Grey says: “I have attended several seminars and talks which I might not have been able to attend in normal circumstances due to the amount of lab work I have. Because they are virtual I can listen to them while in the lab. I like it so far and would prefer they stayed virtual.”

It’s not just the time taken to travel. Flights can cost thousands - not to mention hotels, subsistence and stifling registration fees - which prevents many around the world from attending.

Another democratising aspect has been the question process. Rather than raising a shaky hand, risking judgement by your peers, it’s possible to ask a well considered question at any relevant time during a talk, or after, in the chat box. Many online forums allow anonymous questions, which is a huge bonus in that regard.

Of all the positive impacts of virtual events mentioned by EI staff, a “reduced carbon footprint” was among the most frequent.

3. Short and sweet

If online events have taught us anything, it’s an appreciation of the energy required to simply pay attention.

Many science conferences are a gruelling marathon of slideshows, with breakfast meetings and dinner events meaning the average day can run from 7am until deep into the evening hours. While that packs in a lot of information for the attendees, it’s unlikely to be the most efficient way to spend time.

The various events hosted by EI online this year have offered a refreshing alternative. Python training has been run over a relaxed two weeks, with sessions only taking place in the mornings.

Regular breaks, time caps and efficient chairing dramatically improve the quality of engagement. Sleep and rest are also important for learning, and arguably these recent trainees will have picked up more during those sessions than over an intensive four-day slog.

Both the UK CBCB and EI Innovate events reimagined the traditional conference format. Talks were limited to just a few sessions either side of lunchtime, with specific time set aside for discussions in breakout rooms and networking in the afternoon. They were both pleasant experiences. Of course, as we’ll mention in the cons, what we stand to lose is those opportunities for serendipitous conversations or simply socialising over a coffee.

“This was a perfect course. I actually think it worked better over the virtual platform. It was seamlessly effective with the simultaneous Zoom/Slack chats and our own Jupyter notebook alongside Martin's active Jupyter notebook. Maybe it's just me but I think it could have been quite full-on to do it all in-person; this format allowed us to work in the way we each needed to. Something as simple as knowing I won't be called upon to answer a question meant I could get lost in thought and really fully understand his course material. Honestly, great job.” - attendee of the Advanced Python training course.

EI's Single Cell Symposium presentation looks comfortably at home among PhD student Anita's houseplant collection

Image: PhD student Anita sets up her screen at home for EI's Single Cell Symposium

4. More inclusive networking

Lack of inclusivity is one of the great barriers to improving representation and diversity across many scientific fields.

“As a student, approaching people can be quite daunting,” says PhD student Anita Scoones, who suggests that online facilitated discussion tools can help boost opportunities. “I found the online platform a really great resource to be able to approach people and network, which, normally although potentially more enjoyable in person, can be more difficult.”

Another member of staff indicates that networking online falls less foul of some of the traits common in face-to-face events, where “PIs only talk to PIs, or white men in their forties talk to other white men in their forties.”

We will revisit networking in the cons section, but it should be pointed out that networking is easier for some, but most definitely not all, in face-to-face events.

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As a student, approaching people can be quite daunting, I found the online platform a really great resource to be able to approach people and network, which, normally although potentially more enjoyable in person, can be more difficult.

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5. A more appropriate medium for science talks

Science talks are often laden with references, figures and graphs presented via powerpoint. When the key message is technical, it’s easier to follow what’s going on when the slides are there in front of your face.

Talks are generally recorded, which removes the need for delegates to desperately search for their phones in order to get a quick photo of a slide before the speaker moves on. You also benefit from having your computer or laptop in front of you, making it far easier to look something up or file away a point for future reference.

That said, one or two light-hearted correspondents suggested: “if it is boring and my camera is off, I can be happily working on something else and no one is any the wiser,” suggesting that distractions are rather too close by in a virtual setting.

Open quote marks

Nothing beats being physically present in the room but it’s not always possible, so remote access is an imperative second best.

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Arguing against...

1. Presenting to the void

Presenting to an invisible audience can be disconcerting. It’s almost impossible to gauge the reaction of the audience, which is often so important when delivering a talk. Although this is not necessarily detrimental to all events, it certainly poses challenges for others.

For training courses in particular, the risk of leaving people behind increases. This can be mitigated to some extent by experienced trainers structuring their courses appropriately, but it’s not always possible to spot those who are struggling with the content or - more likely - wifi connectivity issues.

“Without being in the room, it can be more difficult to gauge the audience reaction, atmosphere and level of support at a political event,” says Saskia Hervey. “Nothing beats being physically present in the room but it’s not always possible, so remote access is an imperative second best.”

2. “While you attend virtually, you are not 100% there”

It’s true that during a face-to-face conference you might choose to skip a seminar in favour of a stroll, but the presenter knows who in the audience is at least pretending to listen. With the accepted behaviour online being to turn off your microphone and camera while listening to a talk, it’s not clear who is actually there at all.

Dr Quentin Dudley, who gave a talk recently at an international conference, said “I don’t think many people showed up for the full amount of time. There were few people at networking sessions and not that many views on my talks (based on YouTube views) compared to an in-person session.”

As was pointed out earlier, some are more easily distracted than others, and it’s easy while tuning in online to open up a new tab and start browsing. Before you know it, you’ve missed the talk you were listening to and have answered ten emails. Then again, there are many who take a laptop to a conference - and how many have their smartphone on standby?

In-person events are punctuated with ample opportunities to meet new people, at Earlham Institute our atrium was often the perfect space to chat with peers.

Image: Networking taking place in the Atrium at Earlham Institute before an event starts

3. “Missing social interactions, small talk and free food”

Free food and drink is often a perk of conferences, but a more important aspect missing from virtual offerings is “those unplanned connections” and “the opportunity for chance conversations”. Many of these happen over lunch or during a coffee break.

We mentioned already that networking is more democratic online, and can - in some ways - be easier. But it’s certainly not as easy, nor as natural, to find moments where you can strike up a conversation with a peer that then leads to future collaboration.

In-person events are punctuated with ample opportunities to meet new people, which are most satisfying when they are not felt to be forced. Virtual events will need to find an equivalent to ensure serendipity remains a staple of scientific meetings.

4. Screen Time

A sedentary lifestyle is among the leading factors putting the brakes on life expectancy increases in many countries. That is not helped by sitting in front of yet another screen, to add to the hours of TV that many accumulate these days.

One positive of face-to-face events is that you are largely forced to pay attention to the people speaking, and your fellow attendees, rather than focusing on a screen all day. You’re also likely to be moving around a lot more while visiting different conference rooms, wandering through a new city, or perusing posters.

Getting the right set-up - lighting, monitor height, chair comfort, etc - is as likely to impact your concentration as the quality of the talk. Then again, there is nothing stopping you from listening to a talk while doing a set of burpees - no one can see you.

Typically all events EI have hosted pre-COVID had a strong networking and face-to-face element, so how did these fare in 2020?

Image: A group of attendees at EI event in 2019

5. Teething Problems

There are some quite excruciating aspects of virtual events that we are thankfully spared at in-person events.

One is the famous “can you see my slides?” moment, which suggests that occasionally slides do not appear. Except that this has never been an issue in our experience.

Things that, more regularly, do happen:

  • Microphone muting (it was funny at first but now it’s more annoying)
  • Computer automatically muting the microphone
  • People speaking over each other
  • Hoovering in the background
  • Random attendee ends the conference (this is more common than you’d think)
  • Random attendee is speaking on the phone, loudly
  • People reading from a script (which doesn’t help engagement)
  • Wifi cutting out
  • Sound cutting out

The list goes on. Many of these are resolved with good preparation, and a code of conduct for online events, but some are unavoidable. The experience, for the participant and the speaker, is undoubtedly diminished in some aspects.

Whatever the future holds for academic events, we're sure our pets have learnt a thing or two this year.

Pictured is a recent speakers cat in front of their screen at an online training course.

On the future of events in a post-COVID world

The future is likely to see a blend of in-person and virtual events, especially considering the many positives we have covered here. Accessibility and sustainability must surely be at the forefront of our thinking.

Many of the negatives will also undoubtedly be rectified as we develop more online tools - particularly for networking - and become more comfortable, culturally, with virtual meetings and how to behave online.

EI’s Scientific Training & Education Team Manager Dr Emily Angiolini indicates that events at EI will offer a blend going forwards, a move which is supported by our funders, UKRI BBSRC, and scientific advisory board.

“We put accessibility and useability of our training courses at the forefront of the redevelopment process to allow us to deliver events in a virtual format - making sure delegates had the best chance to absorb and review the information, without suffering screen fatigue, whilst being mindful of other commitments and responsibilities during these unprecedented times,” says Dr Angiolini.

“Having seen first hand how inclusive and accessible our training and other events have been, we are excited to take a new stance with our future events, adapting them to so that we can have delegates both in-person and virtually attending, extending the potential reach and increasing inclusivity. These are the events of the future.”

Join us [virtually] next year.

We are already looking ahead to 2021, with some initial virtual events lined up. More will be announced at the start of 2021, but for now take a look at the training and opportunities we have coming up that you might like to join us at:

2021 Event Calendar

Peter Bickerton

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager