On the first day of one of the biggest conferences of the year, the website clocked more than 20,000 registrants. But for once, I was in no rush to grab a seat for the keynote. One minute before the talk started, I plugged right in from the comfort of my ergonomic office chair. 

With the rise of online portals, it was only a matter of time before we submitted to a virtual world. The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed this transition, coaxing researchers to connect digitally. For a brief period, the experience of attending a conference went from lugging bags on train platforms to simply logging into a platform. 

For a while, scientists believed that they could commit to this medium and save some credit, both monetary and carbon. Academics across the globe imagined a world where they would not miss a conference because of travel fund limitations or visa restrictions. Institution heads dreamed of reallocating budgets dedicated to overpriced hotels, and online attendees breathed better by avoiding the breathless runs across the venue between sessions.

Yet, despite the cost savings that virtual platforms offered for researchers, scientists flew to conferences in throngs once the pandemic restrictions were lifted. The allure of in person congregation begs the question: Why is the digital medium good but not good enough? 

One guess is that the convenience of sitting at home costs the experience of the meeting. Presenting to people sitting in the same room or walking through a poster hall allows for an interaction that can transform into a meaningful conversation. Networking, an important aspect of conferences, relies on human connection, and as failed virtual happy hours have demonstrated, is hard to replicate online.   

Personally, I prefer a mix. If attending a conference in person is not possible, having a virtual option keeps science open. With three clicks, as long as I can avail myself of all presentations, I say, “There’s no place like home.”

What’s your take on the virtual versus in person conference conundrum? 

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