Scientists would like virtual meetings to continue, according to a new poll. But respondents also gave compelling reasons to strike a balance between virtual and in-person events, combining the best of both worlds to maximize the benefits of each.
In a recent poll of scientists who have spent the last year attending mostly virtual events, a significant majority—74 percent—said they believe scientific meetings should continue to be virtual, or include virtual pieces, even after the pandemic is over. Respondents to the poll, conducted by the journal Nature, said the convenience of attending virtual meetings from anywhere in the world was a big plus, but 69 percent conceded that the lack of in-person networking was a downside.
In other words, it’s complicated.
At the beginning of March last year, the American Physical Society became one of the first organizations to cancel a large-scale scientific meeting because of the pandemic. This year, the 2021 APS March Meeting will happen, as will many other organizations’ events, virtually. APS currently has just under 12,000 participants registered, which is only slightly below its highest rate of a little more than 12,000 at its 2019 conference in Boston.
“So, we’re right on target for what we normally do,” said Hunter Clemens, CAE, APS’s director of meetings.
In-person interactions—hallway conversations, spontaneous exchanges, post-session discussions—have all been significantly altered by a virtual format. At APS’s March Meeting, students often benefited from off-the-cuff introductions by their professors to people in the industry. Professors have told Clemens they don’t consider the value of virtual to be as great as in-person for that reason.
However, Nature’s poll suggests there are benefits to virtual for some participants. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they had attended multiple virtual meetings since last March, and another 18 percent had attended at least one. “It has opened the door for a lot of people to participate who normally wouldn’t have,” Clemens said.
While about half of the poll’s respondents (49 percent) said they enjoy the increased accessibility of virtual conferences, 21 percent also said the lower carbon footprint of these events is one of their greatest benefits. According to one estimate, the American Geophysical Union’s fall 2019 meeting, with more than 25,000 attendees, produced the equivalent of 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide due to participant travel alone.
Many APS members are concerned about the carbon footprint of in-person meetings, Clemens said. This means that prioritizing which meetings should be in-person and which ones make sense to deliver virtually is an important consideration.
“In the science community you will see a lot of virtual meetings continue, but smaller and more focused,” he said. APS’s larger meetings will likely be in person. Next year, its March Meeting will be held in Chicago, and Clemens anticipates a “very high turnout” because members are so ready to be together in person.
He expects that APS will implement a hybrid format with a virtual component to its large live meetings. “There’s a sweet spot where you can make it work,” he said.