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 creatively transform their conferences into a virtual format.

One such example is the Twitter Poster Sessions where attendees were asked to tweet an image of their poster with a conference hashtag. This demonstrated the creativity of the scientific community, but above all that new conference formats are possible.

Challenging the traditional conference format is not a new idea, but the pandemic has put the discussion in the spotlight. Although online formats have the potential to miss out on one of the most important aspects of events, namely socializing and networking, some say it will help democratize science.

This brings us to the question: how can we redesign the future of scientific conferences? What are the important factors to consider as we redesign conference formats so that they achieve their goals even better than before?

In this article, I outline important things to consider as the transition to new conferencing formats emerges as well as some new conferencing formats to consider.

Why do scientists meet?

A central question to ask is why do scientists meet? What are the key objectives of science events?

Sharing early-stage research projects and collecting feedback is one of the goals. The publication of preprints with open peer reviews contributes to this, but events are also an important factor in improving the first iterations of a scientific research project.

Conferences also generate networking opportunities that foster new collaborations. An example is Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen who met in 1972 while presenting articles in Hawaii. This meeting 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 get research out of the lab and accelerate innovations.

It may seem obvious, but understanding why scientists and researchers organize and attend events is of the utmost importance if we are to imagine new conference formats.

Conference Formats

In-person conferences

The rapid move to virtual has made us realize how expensive it is to attend physical conferences. The money spent on booking the venue, catering and other expenses requires hefty entry fees to cover them. Since the budget to pay conference registration fees comes mostly from research budgets, this means less money for actual research.

Their environmental impact is significant due to travel by car or plane. In-person events also require more time to organize and monopolize attendee and speaker schedules.

However, in-person events can provide many benefits. They are more memorable due to face-to-face interactions and social activities. They allow participants to travel to new countries and discover new cultures.

Additionally, many types of collaborative sessions, such as roundtables or workshops, are easier to do in person. Having a screen as an interface between participants and not being able to make eye contact does not promote conversations.

Finally, it’s easier to socialize at in-person events because of chance encounters, such as at the coffee table, during the cocktail party poster session, or when you’re assigned a seat next to strangers during of the opening dinner.

I don’t think in-person conferences will disappear completely, but they will most likely be less frequent even after the pandemic.

Virtual Scientific Events

Virtual events are the opposite of in-person events in many ways: they are less expensive, have limited environmental impact, and take up less time for organizers and attendees.

They are more inclusive for women and participants from low-income countries or countries where it is more difficult to obtain a visa. The added diversity can only be beneficial as it blends new ideas and perspectives. Virtual events also favor early career researchers with a smaller budget because they are more affordable.

That being said, attending a virtual event is less exciting than a physical event. Socializing and making meaningful connections is more difficult in front of a computer screen. This is one of the big issues to be addressed in future conference formats.

from google Starline project is a proof of concept that shows that face-to-face interactions can feel more natural in a virtual environment using 3D screens. But this technology, like virtual reality glasses, is not mature enough to be widely adopted for virtual conferencing.

Synchronous hybrid events

Hybrid events have in-person and virtual components. The term “synchronous” simply means that they occur at the same time. It’s pretty popular right now in the event industry, but this format isn’t new.

They have the advantage of seizing the benefits of both in-person and virtual events. The downside is that they are more complex to organize, require additional resources and cost more.

Discussions should be broadcast live to a virtual audience and moderators should monitor questions and entertain the virtual audience as well as the in-person audience.

The synchronous hybrid format is increasingly adopted by organizers of scientific events. Due to the higher resources they require (costs, software, human resources), we have seen most major scientific conferences adopt them. It is likely that as technology evolves and becomes more accessible and easier to use, smaller scientific conferences will also adopt this format.

Asynchronous hybrid events

the The asynchronous hybrid format is a type of hybrid event where the virtual and in-person components do not occur at the same time.

The benefit is that it reduces the complexity associated with synchronous hybrid events, as you don’t need a complex A/V system to broadcast live and there’s no need to manage virtual and in-person audiences .

This means organizers can truly optimize the event to maximize in-person benefits without compromise. The virtual portion of the event can take place one or more days before or even after the in-person sessions.

This new size could be very useful in the future for scientific events. For example, poster sessions are common at scientific conferences and are more difficult to recreate at a synchronous hybrid event.

With an asynchronous format, the virtual poster session can take place a few days before the event. This can create an icebreaker moment. Those who attend both sessions will be able to meet not only virtual participants, but also participants present on site.

Conclusion

We are at a turning point in the organization of conferences. We only see the tip of what is possible as technology continues to evolve at a rapid 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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