COVID-19 Ushers in the Future of Conferences
COVID-19 Ushers in the Future of Conferences

COVID-19 Ushers in the Future of Conferences

The pandemic has forced scientists everywhere to rethink in-person conferences, but some researchers have already been urging changes.  

Abby Olena
Abby Olena
Sep 28, 2020

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The Society for Mathematical Biology and the European Society for Mathematical and Theoretical Biology had planned to hold a joint conference this August in Heidelberg, Germany. But by the time spring rolled around, and the pandemic took firm hold of global travel, that was looking less and less likely. On May 9, the organizers postponed the in-person meeting until 2021. Amber Smith, a mathematical biologist at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and her fellow conference organizers stepped in to put together a virtual conference to give researchers a chance to share the research still advancing worldwide.

“We were really trying to have a meeting that was as close to an in-person meeting as we could possibly have,” Smith tells The Scientist. They found Sococo, a platform that allows users to create an online building. The organizers worked closely with virtual event coordinators at MathDept.org to design the Sococo virtual space so it would provide for socializing, networking, and mentoring, as well as hearing talks, seeing posters, and visiting the meeting’s corporate sponsors.

The goal, according to Smith, was to build an experience that was more than sitting on a Zoom call watching talk after talk. Participants, represented by little colored dots, entered a room by clicking on it and socialized using a feature that finds and pings colleagues for a video chat within the Sococo platform. Via Zoom and webinar integration, all the people in a virtual presentation space attended the same talks and could ask questions by chat, audio, or video.

“We got a ton of feedback from people saying that they absolutely loved it,” Smith says. Plus, the roughly 1,800 attendees represented more than 90 different countries—two to three times as many as at previous in-person Society for Mathematical Biology meetings. The organizers plan to incorporate some virtual components into future conferences, even post-pandemic, she adds.

If we could do it for coronavirus, then we can do it for the climate crisis, too.

—Abraham Palmer, University of California, San Diego

Plenty of meetings have gone virtual—or been canceled all together—since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Proponents of online conferences point to reduced carbon emissions and increased accessibility as they make the case for making many of the pandemic-induced changes to meetings permanent. It remains to be seen whether connections made online will support science in the same way as those made in person, but researchers around the world are trying out strategies to make virtual interactions a success.

Online benefits

Even before the pandemic forced the issue, scientists had been thinking about ways to reduce their carbon footprints, often by cutting back on air travel.

Between the record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic and fires in the western US, “there is an urgent climate emergency,” Abraham Palmer, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego, tells The Scientist. He and Chloe Jordan of the National Institute on Drug Abuse wrote an editorial published on September 16 touting the climate benefits of virtual meetings and exhorting scientists to act. In a comment published August 13, Palmer and Jordan describe how well an online planning meeting for the annual American College of Neuropsychopharmacology conference worked, while detailing the high cost—both in finances and CO2 emissions—of flying everyone to previous planning sessions. 

Participants video chatting in the Sococo platform at the Society for Mathematical Biology meeting held online in August
AMBER SMITH

Meeting online, whether it’s for a conference, study section, or worldwide lab gathering, works better than people expect, and it’s more convenient and economical, Palmer says. When colleagues talk about missing the in-person stuff—dinners, drinks, and chance meetings when sharing a cab to or from an airport—he reminds them of the climate, financial, and time burden of all of those things that they’re missing and of the benefits of changing things up. 

“I really do hope that we’re going to look back in five or ten years and this will really have been a turning point where a lot of the things that we had leading up to COVID are never going to get rebuilt the same way they were,” he says. “If we could do it for coronavirus, then we can do it for the climate crisis, too.”

Another benefit of meeting virtually is how many more people can access the conferences. Researchers with caregiving responsibilities, disabilities, travel restrictions, scheduling conflicts, or limited funds are more likely to be able to attend a meeting online, says Sarvenaz Sarabipour, a computational biologist at Johns Hopkins University. She and an international group of other early-career researchers posted a preprint on bioRxiv in April in which they curated a database of more than 270 past in-person conferences across scientific disciplines and evaluated them for inclusivity and sustainability.

They found that nearly 860,000 people spent more than $1.288 billion and generated upwards of 2 million tons of CO2 attending these conferences between 2016 and 2020. And for the most part, the gatherings had no public diversity or gender equity policies and didn’t offer childcare or formal accommodations for nursing a baby. The authors propose several alternatives, including taking things online and putting emphasis on regional conferences or coordinating several hubs of one larger conference, so less air travel would be required to attend, an idea that Palmer favors as well.

One of the main objections that people make to virtual meetings is the loss of networking time, especially for early-career researchers looking for jobs. That criticism is unfounded, according to Sarabipour, who says that the websites of scientific journals, Twitter, and, more recently, massive Slack communities of early-career scientists have been more consistent sources for jobseekers than once-yearly scientific meetings. And despite the objections, the widespread adoption of online interactions during the pandemic “begs the question of why we had to get to this point to do something this good.” Sarabipour says.

The future is now 

Even before the pandemic, some researchers were working on making meetings better. Last summer, Dan Goodman, a computational neuroscientist at Imperial College London, was involved in discussions with various colleagues about how to reduce the climate impact of conferences. “People were saying we should make them online, and I was very skeptical of that, because I understood that the point of conferences is not just to look at the talks, it’s to meet people and to make new connections,” he tells The Scientist. “I wasn’t really convinced that it would work” online.

One of the main objections that people make to virtual meetings is the loss of networking time, especially for early-career researchers looking for jobs.

Then, in September 2019, Goodman headed to the Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, where he participated in a so-called mind matching session. Participants provided three abstracts representative of their research and were matched by an algorithm with up to six other scientists, with whom they had 15-minute conversations.

“My mind was absolutely blown by it, because I sat down, and I met six people that I’d never met before. Two of them were working on exactly the same problem that I was working on, and I’d never heard of them,” Goodman says. “I thought, ‘Okay, if you have something as powerful as this, maybe you can get rid of in-person conferences because you can replace that social element, which is the point of the whole thing.’”

Goodman got in touch with University of Pennsylvania computational neuroscientist Konrad Kording and Titipat Achakulvisut, a graduate student in Kording’s group who led the development of the algorithm behind the mind matching. It works by analyzing the text supplied by each person, as well as people they already know and people they hope to meet, and using those analyses to create a matrix of compatibility from which they pull possible matches. They use a similar strategy for matching jobseekers with job listings at meetings.

Along with some other colleagues, Goodman, Kording, and Achakulvisut started to plan an online computational neuroscience “unconference” called neuromatch that, in addition to having live talks via Crowdcast, would offer attendees six suggestions of people to speak to. When things started to shut down due to COVID-19, they quickly planned to hold the first neuromatch in March. It was free, and 3,000 people attended.

In a point-of-view published in eLife in April, the organizers explain their strategies for running the online unconference. In May, they held neuromatch 2.0, also attended by about 3,000 people, and they’re planning neuromatch 3.0 for October. For the first time, at neuromatch 3.0, the organizers are charging a $25 registration fee that anyone can waive, no questions asked, and have opened the unconference to all neuroscientists, not just those interested in computational neuro.

Achakulvisut predicts that both online and in-person conferences will exist in the future, but that many neuromatch attendees will probably keep coming to online conferences. “We have people from all over the world that typically can’t show up” if the conference is somewhere hard to get to—because of visa restrictions, distance, expense, or something else.

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The sort of reach that a conference like neuromatch offers is just the beginning of what Mike Morrison, a web developer–turned–Michigan State University PhD student in work psychology, would like to see for science. In a commentary published September 3, he and his coauthors propose that scientific conferences, especially now that so many are taking place virtually, could be venues to update the whole world about the progress of science, not just the attendees.

Making all conference products—talks, posters, and abstracts—available as YouTube videos, images via FigShare, and preprints, they argue, could be a way to accelerate the pace of discovery by reaching everyone who might possibly contribute. Conference administrators want this bigger impact for their attendees, Morrison says. “I’m really looking forward to hearing from a scientific conference to see if they want to try it.”

Another democratizing strategy Morrison and colleagues propose is the #TwitterPoster, a three–to–five–slide PowerPoint presentation optimized to be shared as a GIF on Twitter—a tool that could also work in poster sessions at virtual meetings. Sharing information in this flipbook-like style was so successful for a group of psychology grad students at University College Dublin earlier this year that their hashtag #GIFsFromYourGaff started trending.

Michigan State University PhD student Mike Morrison introduces the #TwitterPoster, a strategy for sharing science quickly on Twitter.
MIKE MOrrison

“On the internet, it is the nature of content to be freely available, spread widely, and permanent,” Morrison tells The Scientist. “In science, our content is still locked-down, kept to ourselves, and—especially in the case of conference content—ephemeral. What I want for the future is for science to close the gap with modern publishing methods, so it can be as available and easy to access as the rest of humanity’s content.”

Effectiveness: to be determined

The Transforming Vaccinology meeting originally planned for March was canceled, but the organizers and facilitating nonprofit Keystone Symposia regrouped to offer a COVID-19–specific vaccinology conference online in June. In the context of a pandemic, it was perhaps even more critical to have so many researchers—including keynote speaker Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—able to come together and trade ideas. 

The meeting “got tremendous interest, and a lot of unpublished data was shared,” says Thale Jarvis, Keystone Symposia’s chief scientific officer. “The organizers commented on the amazing . . . democratization of the access to science.”

Participants from more than 60 countries engaged in extensive Q&A sessions with speakers via chat and video, and session moderators moved unanswered questions over to the public forum for further discussion. “We have a variety of different ways that we try to try to connect people and, obviously, it’s never going to quite replicate those random interactions that happen at a face-to-face meeting, where you strike up a conversation on the way over to breakfast and end up discovering you have something in common scientifically,” she says, “but the sort of kneejerk reaction that because it’s a virtual format it won’t give a satisfying outcome is a bit unfair.”

Especially for innovators, being physically close at some point is, as far as the research indicates, pretty important.

—Maria Roche, Harvard Business School

Since early in the pandemic, Gautam Dey, a postdoc at University College London, has co-organized an online seminar series called pombeTalks that draws around 150 fission yeast researchers to Zoom every other week. He and organizers of other virtual seminar series published a perspective in the Journal of Cell Science on August 1, giving tips for starting and supporting such a community. 

“The online formats, whether it’s a virtual conference format or a seminar series format, are extremely good at broadly disseminating information . . . and to make that as inclusive and effectively carbon neutral as possible,” he says. “But the thing that I anecdotally observe in those interactions is that they are, with some exceptions, built upon preexisting, real-world relationships between people that have built up over years,” he adds. “To me, it seems very difficult to de novo generate new scientific connections between people through these virtual formats, whatever they are.”

Dey’s concern is neither uncommon nor unfounded. Maria Roche, who studies knowledge production and innovation at Harvard Business School, tells The Scientist that studies have shown that colocation—even temporary colocation at an in-person conference—can have an effect on the rate and quality of scientific collaborations. “Especially for innovators, being physically close at some point is, as far as the research indicates, pretty important,” she says.

Psychologist Anne Frenzel and chronobiologist Martha Merrow, both of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, have collaborated to study participant experiences in virtual conferences created to reduce carbon emissions. In the first iteration, some participants gathered at regional hubs to cut down on travel and others participated fully online.

The researchers have been exploring “whether conference participants experience different levels of subjective satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs of relatedness (feeling connected with the other conference attendees), competence (feeling capable, effective, and proficient), and autonomy (having a sense of choice) when attending virtual versus live conferences,” Frenzel writes in an email to The Scientist. “The relatedness factor seems the one which is most at stake with virtual formats.”

According to Frenzel, preliminary and “poorly statistically powered” analyses so far indicate “that virtual attendance, as compared to live attendance at the hubs, did not substantially affect psychological experiences of basic need satisfaction.” But she cautions that she is reluctant to interpret those findings in a way that suggests virtual conferences work just as well as live conferences from a psychological perspective. Psychological research addressing the impact of digitally-based versus in-person interaction is fairly limited, she adds, but this “striking research gap . . . is certainly currently being addressed in many ongoing projects inspired by the COVID crisis.”