The Future of Scientific Conferences
The following article is an opinion piece written by Matthieu Chartier. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
When the pandemic started, conference organizers had to transform their conferences to a virtual format in creative ways.
One such example is the Twitter Poster Sessions where participants were invited to tweet an image of their poster with a conference hashtag. This demonstrated the creativity of the scientific community, but more importantly that new conference formats are possible.
Challenging the traditional conference format is not a new idea, but the pandemic brought the discussion into the spotlight. While online formats have the potential to miss out on one of the most important aspects of events, that is socializing and networking, some argue it will help democratizing science.
This leads to the question: how can we reimagine the future of scientific conferences? What are the important factors to consider as we reshape the conference formats so that they achieve their intended goals even better than before?
In this article, I outline important elements to consider as the transition to new conference formats emerge as well as some new conference formats to consider.
Why do scientists meet?
One central question to ask ourselves is why do scientists meet? What are the key objectives of scientific events?
Sharing early-stage research projects and gathering feedback is one of the objectives. The publication of pre-prints with open peer reviews contributes to this, but events are also an important factor to improve the early iterations of a scientific research project.
Conferences also generate networking opportunities that foster new collaborations. One example is Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen who met in 1972 while presenting papers in Hawaii. This encounter led them to collaborate, and their work laid the foundations of gene therapy.
Other reasons scientists meet include professional development and connecting with industry partners to bring research out of the labs and accelerate innovations.
This might seem obvious, but an understanding of why scientists and researchers organize and attend events is of utmost importance if we are to imagine new conference formats.
The rapid switch to virtual made us realize how costly attending physical conferences is. The money spent on booking the venue, catering and other expenses requires high registration costs to cover them. Because the budget to pay for conference registration fees mostly comes from research budgets, this means less money for the actual research.
Their environmental impact is non-negligible due to travel by car or plane. In-person events also require more time to organize and monopolize the participants’ and the speakers' schedules.
However, in-person events can provide many advantages. They are more memorable because of the face-to-face interactions and the social activities. They allow participants to travel to new countries and discover new cultures.
Also, many collaborative session types, like panel discussions or workshops, are easier to do in person. Having a screen as the interface between participants and not being able to make eye contact doesn’t favor conversations.
Finally, it’s easier to socialize at in-person events because of the serendipitous encounters, for example at the coffee table, during the cocktail poster session or when you’re assigned a seat next to strangers during the keynote dinner.
I don’t think that in-person conferences will completely disappear, but they will most likely be less frequent even post pandemic.
Virtual scientific events
Virtual events are the opposite to in-person events in many regards: they’re less costly, have limited environmental impact, and monopolize less time for organizers and participants.
They’re more inclusive to women and participants from lower income countries or from countries for which it’s harder to get a visa. The added diversity can only be beneficial because it blends new ideas and perspectives. Virtual events also favor early career investigators with a smaller budget since they are more affordable.
That being said, attending a virtual event is less exciting than a physical one. Socializing and making meaningful connections is harder in front of a computer screen. This is one of the big issues to address in future conference formats.
Google’s project Starline is proof of concept that shows face-to-face interactions can feel more natural in a virtual setting using 3D displays. But this technology, just like virtual reality glasses, is not mature enough to be widely adopted for virtual conferences.
Synchronous hybrid events
Hybrid events have in-person and virtual components. The “synchronous” term simply means they happen at the same time. This is quite popular at the moment in the event industry, but this format is not new.
They have the benefit of capturing the advantages of both in-person and virtual events. The drawback is they are more complex to organize, require additional resources and cost more.
The talks need to be livestreamed to a virtual audience and the moderators need to watch for questions and entertain the virtual audience as well as the in-person audience.
The synchronous hybrid format is increasingly being adopted by scientific event organizers. Due to the higher resources they require (costs, software, human resources), we’ve seen mostly larger scientific conferences adopt them. It is likely that as technology evolves and becomes more accessible and easier to use, that smaller scientific conferences will adopt this format as well.
Asynchronous hybrid events
The asynchronous hybrid format is a type of hybrid event where the virtual and in-person component don’t happen at the same time.
The advantage is it decreases the complexity that comes with synchronous hybrid events because you don’t need a complex A/V system to livestream and there is no need to manage a virtual and in-person audience.
This means organizers can really optimize the event to maximize the in-person benefits without compromise. The virtual part of the event can happen one or more days before or even after the in-person sessions.
This new format could be quite useful for the future for scientific events. For example, poster sessions are common at scientific conferences and are harder to recreate at a synchronous hybrid event.
With an asynchronous format, the virtual poster session can happen a few days before the event. This can create an ice-breaker moment. Those who attend both sessions will be able to meet not only virtual attendees, but also the attendees present on site.
We are at a turning point in regard to how conferences are organized. We’re only seeing the tip of what’s possible since technology continues to evolve at a fast pace.
The era of in-person events is not over, but it is now impossible to ignore the benefits of having a virtual format beyond the pandemic.
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