Coronavirus has disrupted our lives in so many ways personally and professionally. In my profession, scientific conferences have been forced into virtual settings. The irony is that before the pandemic there was a growing call for more online science conferences. Critics argued that in-person conferences were too expensive, cumbersome to execute, and detrimental to carbon emission reductions. In recent decades, I significantly limited my air travel, in part, because of these concerns as well as a general disdain for flying. However, pandemic realities have revealed many downsides of virtual science conferences too.
This article was inspired by a Tweet from my colleague Jeff Basara, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma. Basara is the Director of the Kessler Atmospheric and Ecological Field Station and the Executive Associate Director of the Hydrology and Water Security Program at the University of Oklahoma. He tweeted earlier in the week, “I recall the momentum that was building for online conferences, but the Covid world has taught us that (1) there is a right/wrong way to be virtual and (2) there is a need for in-person meetings.”
I am not here to torpedo virtual science conferences. They are absolutely necessary at a time when COVID-19 continues to ravage society. Virtual conferences:
- Increase access to world-class science,
- Level the playing field for students and scholars that may not be able to afford the aggregate costs of a traditional conference,
- Reduce carbon emissions associated with travel, food, and other conference activities,
- Enable access to a wider range of conference proceedings and meetings, and
- Eliminate sprints and marathons across large convention halls.
These are all good things. I have attended several virtual meetings since the pandemic, and there have been some outstanding successes. There have also been some pretty bad experiences too. Here are four downsides of virtual science conferences that I have noticed during our shared 2020 circumstances.
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The face-to-face interaction is missing. For me, the sidebar conversations, lobby meetings, exhibit hall banter, and dinners were some of the most productive aspects of meetings like the American Meteorological Society (AMS), which will be online in January 2021. I have literally recruited graduate students, forged research partnerships, engaged in science, and crafted societally-relevant policy or activities in the spaces. My current or former graduate students have heard me say many times that you can probably replay talks (at AMS) later – Don’t be so hamstrung by the presentation schedule that you miss opportunities to engage.
Community is lost. Online meetings are functional but can be impersonal. For example, the Color of Weather event at the AMS Annual meeting was an outstanding opportunity for diverse members of the weather enterprise to meet and engage with each other and key leaders. The AMS Student Conference allowed undergraduate students to sit at tables with the Director of the National Weather Service or a high profile broadcast meteorologist. Career fairs, university alumni gatherings, and exhibit hall events are great networking opportunities for all career stages. These opportunities are just not the same sitting in front of a computer screen.
Screen fatigue is real. The prospect of sitting in front of a laptop or computer for 8 to 12 hours is not appealing to me at all. I readily admit getting a bit antsy after a string of Zoom meetings. Many of the online conferences have a series of sessions and breakout rooms. Let’s keep it real, that can be exhausting. A recent National Geographic article by Julia Sklar documented how “Zoom Fatigue” wears on our psyche. A BBC article points out that online engagement requires more focus, creates insecurities about being on camera, and enables awkward periods of silence and technical difficulties. Further, Manyu Jiang writes about self-complexity theory, which explains the notion that having to juxtapose our social, work, and family life within the same space can be stressful. I am not surprised at all that kids (K-12 and collegiate) are struggling with performance in online learning environments. At the end of the day, we are social beings and already stressed out because of the coronavirus threat.
Eric Fournier, Director of Educational Development at Washington University, also makes a great point about distractions. He said, “For me one issue with online conferences has been multi-tasking—so having the presenter’s window up in the corner of my screen while trying to listen and doing three other work-related things.”
Health of science organizations suffers . This last point may not resonate with most readers. In fact, many people complain about the costs of professional society membership and conference fees. However, as the former President of the AMS, it is a point worth making. Scientific organizations like AMS, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), or the American Association of Geographers (AAG) are vital. It often frustrated me that some people cannot see the bigger picture value of their relatively small investment in these organizations. They provide peer-reviewed journal access, platforms to break science news, guidance for policymakers, training resources for members, educational materials for K-16 communities, career access and advocacy for sound science (something that has been need in recent years as science was increasingly undermined). Here is a “bottom line” or “Is what it is” statement. These organizations depend, in part, on revenue from conferences. I am concerned about the health of our science organizations.
The pandemic has forced us all to adapt. We are good at it and usually find novel and more efficient ways to do things in times of crisis. This time will be no different. However, 2020 has revealed that I am not quite ready to dismiss face-to-face science meetings yet.