What is the future of conferences? And what should be?
Thoughts from a virtual conference access consultant and organizer.
In May 2020, I co-organized a virtual conference called Space Science in Context. Our vision was simple, but bold: bridge two or more very disparate fields — space science and social science — and innovate virtual platforms. Dr. Ellie Armstrong and I started plotting this conference in January 2020; on musing on the failures of many conferences to provide equitable physical and cognitive space for disabled attendees, our desire to recruit a truly diverse set of speakers and pay them well, and to bypass the carbon cost of conference travel, we thought, in proposing for a modest grant, to get more bang for our buck by going virtual. We won our grant one week before lockdown in the UK.
#SSiC2020 exploded; we expected around 80 registrants, but ended up with over 450; because our event is flipped, we are still getting “post-registrations.” SSiC had an exceptionally high rate of attendance from women (64%), LGBTQ people (69%+), nonbinary people (10%), and disabled people (25%, which reflects broader society in the US, UK, and Europe, but only 4% of UK academics are disabled). Our 13 invited speakers and 30+ e-poster presenters spanned over 20 timezones, and 100% of our invited speakers weren’t white men and 92% weren’t men. We received feedback from people who’d normally avoided conferences due to proximity to harassers, lack of access measures, and restrictions on religious freedom (e.g. no prayer rooms at meeting venues). It has been a humbling, beautiful experience and the feedback has shown us that building a safe, caring, deliberate event comes with incredible benefits to knowledge exchange.
Much of our success came from envisioning access through our friendship — understanding it as a give-and-take, loving system — and having many more weeks to really deliberate on how to build our event than most scientific conferences in 2020. Our model of access, particularly through our conference policy and guidance for speaker content, has been praised as an example for the space science community.
Since SSiC, Ellie and I have been involved in chairing, convening, consulting on, and otherwise organizing virtual events. After the dizzying success of SSiC and this subsequent work, I’ve been occupied by a few big questions: what does it mean to have a conference? Why do we do the things we do? So here are my reflections on virtual conferencing as a consultant, scientist, and as someone who has often skipped conferences.
(1) In the current state of science, people need conferences.
Set aside, for a moment, all the ways people actively want to attend and present at conferences.
We are made to understand that exposing our research to an audience is important for establishing our standing in our fields and garner interest for upcoming publications. Conferences, which are often held or sponsored by publishing companies, are directly linked to publishing, and as we know, the current state of science is one of “publish or perish.” In academia, income relies (on tenure or prestige which rely on) grants which rely on a good publication record, which relies, ultimately, on how we can make our work exciting to our community. Networking and subsequent collaborations or contacts are important for job applications as well as publication.
And the reception of our work in science is, of course, an equity issue — citation is political (there are a lot of studies on this that rely on gender-from-name algorithms which are flawed; here’s a great resource on this). Only ten Black PIs were awarded with government funding from the UK research council, UKRI, in 2019; UKRI funded no Black researchers to study COVID impacts on Black and minority ethnic people. Women are more likely to have caring responsibilities, and published less during the pandemic than men.
I’m not going to outline all the ways research fails a lot of people, but ultimately, these failures put greater pressure on women, people of color, disabled people, LGBTQ people, and non-Western people to publish and present (and innovate?) more. The people who are already excluded systematically in STEM are further pressured to use — or made to want and need, especially for those who don’t have networks of people with similar life experiences and identities at their institutions — conferences to essentially make up for the institutional neglect, discrimination, and disinterest in furthering their careers. Meetings can be the only times minoritized scientists meet people like them in their fields.
So, before I talk about the problems of conferences, I want to establish this: people rely on conferences, and while we can criticize the very formation of conferences, their roles, and their problems, it’s important to note that we can’t improve them without making radical changes in STEM in parallel. This is true not just for minoritized groups in STEM but for all.
Conferences will endure and we should take this time to think of radical ways to change what conferences mean. That of course has to be paired with reckoning with all of the excessive, exploitative, and extractive culture, behavior, and history of academia and research.
(2) Virtual can bring access to people, but it doesn’t do that by default.
Virtual conferences have the benefit of reaching people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise travel; flipped-model events can give more time for carers and neurodivergent people to access and engage with content. But these benefits are often taken for granted.
The most baseline access wins with virtual typically mean exclusion in other regards — you can’t just sit back and call a little bit of access, as a treat, universal access. Many conference websites in my field aren’t WCAG compliant (e.g. don’t have screen-reader-friendly images); if conferences do feature captioning, they’re often the faulty live-captioning plugins of platforms like Zoom and Webex.
Access has to be baked into the very structure of a conference, and led by disabled experts. This includes ALL access, which is about everyone! Virtual meetings don’t work for many people, whether these are blind-unfriendly virtual meetings, or flipped events that actually place a lot of burden on carers and others who have to make content for an event, often having to self-teach video and audio editing. Screen fatigue is an ever-emerging access issue. Access has many meanings!
And, just because something is online doesn’t mean people from the Global South or minorities feel welcome and able to access your program, whether it’s due to timezone restrictions (a problem we had with SSiC) or the culture of your field. Harassment is a prevalent thing at scientific conferences. That’s an access issue.
As someone who has witnessed the enabling power of virtual meetings, I feel the impulse to always defend it, especially as we are likely facing a reactionary upswing of in-person-only events post-pandemic, and especially in reaction to much commentary about how virtual meetings are “destroying” science — but there are indeed so many problems. Virtual isn’t really a discrete medium, it’s the product of the work put into it and the structure it’s given.
(3) Copy + pasting the model of in-person conferences to the virtual realm doesn’t work.
Are you trying to exactly simulate the offline experience in the virtual realm? A lot of organizers understandably just want to remake the in-person conference as closely as possible when transitioning to virtual. Not only is this an access issue — people need captions, breaks, content guidance, workable user interfaces, a good internet connection, assistance with caring responsibilities— but it also brings to attention whether conferences were working in the first place. This is a subtle but impactful problem; where do we make sweeping assumptions in our organization of virtual meetings, and where do they come from?
Good web design and UX are vital for attendees to intuit your program, code of conduct, way to ask questions and contact speakers, and plan out what they want to see. Webex, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc., all have quirks, their own tools, and their own weaknesses and these need to be researched and communicated directly to attendees in a clear way. Conference programs need to be improved with mindfulness on how your database, algorithms, and other computing backend tools may (mis)behave (the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this year briefly bungled presenters’ names, ending up deadnaming trans attendees and misnaming people with nontraditional names or those who use their middle names, on their online program).
This is a great site for innovating how we interact with each other and the conference content. The Diversity in Space Careers meeting this year had a native streaming platform with moderated Q&A, live CART, and convener-driven question time with speakers, mimicking classic speaker seminars with a flipped element. This was useful for a smaller event that was keynote- and panel-centered. The Future of Meetings, a big meeting about meetings (!) organized by CSIRO in 2020, also had a native app and web interface that allowed for streaming and live text chat, and which implemented a captioning and transcription service as well as forums for building ideas. TFOM has continued this work, as well, building a collaborative model for meeting (about meetings!).
Alternatively, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) meeting in 2020 decided to shift the conference to social media, which was creative and refreshing, allowed for improved access, and appealed to early-career researchers (ECRs), reimagining what it means to engage with conference material.
The social environment of meetings
Conferences already have dire equity problems. A lot of my reason for caring about the future of conferences is that I’ve experienced harassment and bullying at conferences and workshops, and experienced hostile physical spaces where I don’t have food or somewhere to sit, sometimes for hours (rendering networking something I don’t typically do). While virtual conferences bypass the problems — problems that are constructed by poor planning — of food waste, in-person threatening behavior, lack of ramps and elevators, etc., that doesn’t mean that we aren’t trying to translate that framing of meetings directly to the virtual world.
For example, a major gender problem — conferences may not actively generate this problem, but they don’t correct for this issue; do we want to replicate that in the virtual realm? I recently consulted for the British Sedimentological Research Group, a section of the Geological Society, who had observed that women presenters tended to choose posters over talks at their conferences. To balance this at their virtual meeting in December 2020, they changed how e-posters were centered and prioritized during the day. This is one creative avenue that societies and conveners could take; of what little opportunities, in shifting and reconfiguring how we think of programs and sessions, can we take advantage to correct for issues in the field?
Further, codes of conduct need adapting to the virtual realm, where screen-shotting, spamming, and racist Zoom-bombing are a regular thing. There already aren’t enough codes of conduct that are progressive and enforced for in-person meetings. It is a further challenge to make a deliberate, tailored code for an event, and this requires careful attention and an understanding of your platform and event structure, and making sure attendees commit. To not take this seriously is to not take all of your attendees seriously.
When we have a discriminatory, wasteful, and exploitative model of in-person conferences to the virtual realm is cheap, easy, and very lazy and does your attendees a disservice. Will you be innovative and take advantage of the unique gains of the virtual realm while addressing its unique challenges?
(4) Use the money better.
Yes, it’s an equity issue.
Expenses are difficult but the question should always be — how were they used before, and what do you want to use them on now?
One major failure is how ableism at conferences comes at a financial cost. Gabi Serrato Marks captures this in her excellent piece “Conferencing while chronically ill,” a comprehensive guide for disabled people attending academic conferences. The amount of precautions, alternative and contingency plans, and self-monitoring that we have to perform at conferences is not just personally costly, but also financially; disabled people often skip entire days of conferences to recover, particularly because venues are physically hostile (e.g. not enough seats, people not making space for us, food we’re allergic to) which often affects the health of chronically ill people.
Meanwhile, the access measures at in-person conferences — ramps, captions, signing — are almost always nonexistent. All of this adds up to how the financial cost, whether upfront or eventual, punishes or pushes out people who already have limited access in STEM. Conferences also produce food and plastic waste, which critically intersect with ableism in different ways and cost organizations money.
Another historic failure of in-person conferencing (and a lot of other aspects of academia), although somewhat outside the responsibility of the organizations that host meetings, is that reimbursement doesn’t work. The model of reimbursement is a huge equity problem. People who can’t charge conference expenses to credit cards, who don’t have disposable income, who have caring responsibilities; these are just some of many for whom conference fee reimbursement is exclusive and punitive. While beyond the scope of meetings themselves, this is still a function of money in our field as it relates to attending meetings, and what generates those costs, like registration and flights.
But what about virtual meetings? A lot of meetings are charging less for virtual versions, but some space science conferences are still charging more than $150 for registration. And does this money go to CART? A transcription service? Live sign language interpretation? Grants for ECRs? Platforms that are intuitive and accessible? I don’t really know.
A big question for a lot of societies in 2020 was whether to continue to have travel grants during the pandemic. These turned out to be useful, allowing scientists to purchase needed equipment and SIM cards for connecting to meetings, and to allay care costs. Hopefully this is something that will continue with hybrid and optionally virtual events.
As for access, I know, personally, that there’s a way to center access in the finances of a conference. SSiC had a £1000 budget and was free to attend. We paid 12 speakers and a transcription service (regrettably no CART or live sign language interpreters). We couldn’t pay our poster speakers (we added poster sessions a few weeks into organizing), and we had a handful of volunteer moderators step in at the end whom should have been funded. However, we raised money equivalent to our grant for the Indigenous Environmental Network COVID relief fund in place of registration. We applied this model and these lessons to the Pride in STEM Day Virtual Conference 2020, where we had live BSL interpreters, pre-recorded talks that we livestreamed with full captions and transcription (as with SSiC), and paid speakers.
However, these were events with a small number of attendees, and for which we didn’t have to pay for online services to host our events. It’s just one testimony as many organizations are running into issues with how to balance costs with meetings. But, especially if we’re expected to just copy + paste in-person events in the virtual realm, do we really want to continue this particular legacy?
Pay our speakers?
A lot of us are realizing, as we learn to screen-record, splice video clips, and edit beautiful videos for flipped conferences, that we’re putting a lot more time and energy into talks and posters than when we’d write them on the train or plane to the venue. If you add in how the pandemic has exaggerated the extent to which this work takes away from active research time, and has to be balanced with raising kids, working in non-ideal environments, the effect of a global pandemic on mental health, or Internet access issues, this begs the question: why don’t we pay speakers?
I was recently invited to speak about SSiC at a major conference, but for no honorarium or waived registration fee (in the hundreds!). This caught me off guard — normally, giving this same type of talk elsewhere, I receive an honorarium. If you take away the scientific conference title from our meetings and look at it as a series of talks, a collection of seminars, it’s actually bizarre that we don’t pay speakers. What sets aside scientific conferences from any other type of speaking event?
Maybe paying speakers looks like a tiered system depending on grant status and career level, or maybe it means a no means-testing system. I don’t have the answers. I have no idea from where the money would come. Conference expenses are complicated, especially as the pandemic has really hit the organizations that hold these meetings. But maybe that means the underlying issue is, in fact, the nature of scientific publishing — why do we pay to publish papers and not receive royalties! — how and why we meet and when and where, and how scientists are funded. What is registration for? How do we understand labor in academia and research?
(5) The pain of flying
We are living in a climate disaster.
This is often a very emotional topic, and understandably so; we are used to the activities of our fields, especially as scientists who may feel our work is vital enough to overlook the carbon cost of what we do (I’m a space scientist so I don’t kid myself). There has been a minor recent push in earth and planetary sciences to better assess the carbon footprint of our meetings and reduce this, including the Europlanet Science Conference (EPSC) encouraging train travel in 2019, and EGU promoting carbon offsets and reducing waste.
However, in the grand scheme of things, carbon offsets aren’t scientific, destroy naturally tree-free biomes, and are linked to neo-colonial practices in the Global South and settler-colonial countries. The flights for one American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting, which drew 25,000 attendees in 2019, released 80,000 tons (0.08 MT) of CO2 that year (you can look at the authors’ data and methods here).
At the University of Montreal, it is estimated that academics’ annual carbon footprint from academic travel alone is nearly equivalent to the yearly carbon footprint of an average Canadian. The carbon emissions of the average astronomer in Australia is 40% more than the average Australian, not just from flying but also the operation of supercomputers and observatories. Sarabipour et al. (2020) compare the carbon footprint of conference attendees to that of countries, an alarming set of statistics (fig. 3) — a cross-country flight to the American Biophysical Society conference, for example, generates CO2 exceeding the annual carbon footprint of the average person in 47 countries.
I’m of the opinion that it’s important to balance our understanding of individual responsibility with holding companies and institutions, such as oil companies and lobbyists — “the system” — to account when it comes to climate justice. But this is the exact situation where we as scientists in the Global North are the system. Maybe it isn’t every research group, but it’s enough (a previous group of mine took nearly 20 flights in the first six weeks of 2020 alone). It’s also a prime example of how easily we pollute this planet; while the Global South is the first to bear the burden of climate disaster, the Global North produces 92% of emissions. AGU is largely Earth scientists, largely Western Earth scientists attending a conference in the West. 0.08 MT is pretty much on the scale of the annual carbon footprint of most Caribbean and small Pacific islands (whose annual emissions are around 0.10–0.90 MT; the US is ~6,000 MT), who are under dire threat as sea levels rise.
All I can ask is: how do we stop this? How many of the solutions are grounded in expanding access measures? How do we also address that scientists in the Global South are pressured to fly in order to succeed?
Meanwhile, I think many of us treat conferences as welcome, exciting breaks and a means to visit great locations. During my Ph.D. in the UK, I used the vehicle of conferences to visit Europe for the first time (I’m USian). This was a way of making friends and having a holiday during my degree (N.B. after learning about the carbon issue of conferences, I traveled by train to EPSC in 2019). It was also unnecessary.
This is a major cultural component of our fields; we will have to have the humility to admit that for many, a conference is an indulgent jolly. The psychological shift will have to be huge. And, as mentioned, minority scientists often rely on flying to conferences to interface with often nationally or globally disparate networks. The solution has to be multi-modal and inherently must address equity.
Flying is also exclusive
And no one should feel pressured to have to go to a different country — which especially impacts low-income, firstgen, nonwhite, disabled, LGBTQ people, women, people on visas (Sarabipour et al., fig. 4), and people in remote parts of the globe— to have a good career. And guess who’s already pushed out? What happens as the vaccinated Global North shifts events away from virtual again (cf. this Twitter thread on the future of collaboration)? When flight prices are typically dependent on distance, who are we excluding, and what is the class distribution of the people we do draw from the Global South? Unfortunately, that pressure is a part of our model of science, and I don’t believe shame is a productive force for change.
However, there is a real issue that research groups with the means and will think that their travel is worth the cost because they’re giving back. Our planet doesn’t work that way, and neither does diversity. I think this is another site of radical re-imagination of how we disseminate scientific information, and why.
(7) Do conferences even “work”?
A lot of these points return to the fact that conferences were flawed and problematic well before the pandemic, and how willing we are to address that at this moment of vulnerability and re-imagination.
Conferences, like academia, keep knowledge locked away from the “public”; they are an active method of establishing a class of scholars as separate from a “public” rather than a part of it. And we can’t even equally access it, participate in it, and benefit from it.
While conferences certainly do their job within “publish or perish,” bringing some the opportunity to network and build collaborations and grow communities — something not to write off — their heritage is one of hegemony and hierarchy, societies of men and colonial complicity. This is baked into what conferencing (and by extension, presenting and networking) means that I don’t know that it — in its current form, within this system — is worth saving.
I don’t think there’s a perfect solution; I think it’ll need creative, radical changes, like regional hybrid AGUs, reframing meetings as deconstructive “unconferences,” etc. This hinges on de-prioritizing national meetings and the fun of travel, centering an ethos of science for society and communal responsibility, and restructuring how funds work, whether government funding bodies, scientific societies, or publishing companies. I think it also, therefore, hinges on de-prioritizing the prestige of these meetings, and the journal industry. So, a lot.
All of this further necessitates that our scientific societies and institutions actually want better; unfortunately, a global pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean that things like equity and access will become central priorities.
Ultimately, though, I really appreciate the societies putting the time and thought into taking this opportunity to imagine more equitable meetings. In many ways, it is important that a lot of able-bodied, white citizens in STEM are feeling challenged and seeing firsthand what it’s like to be disconnected, excluded from networks, and made unable to participate fully. But what will you take away from that experience? Will it be a reactionary movement to reestablish conferences in their exact form, and maybe even more entrenched in the offline? Or will the many events based on reimagining meetings, creative solutions to access problems, and taking care of attendees, including during climate disaster, win out?
But amongst all of this emotion, I think the primary lesson we should learn is that we are not each other’s enemy. Now is the moment to step back and think about our vast spectrum of experiences in the past year and before, and maybe that the system itself is wrong. How do I uphold that system? How am I excluding people in my practice? How can I correct for the discrimination? How can I reimagine and reshape the tools that we do have in order to improve the field? What does a “reclaimed,” “cooperative model” of scientific meetings look like, to quote Dr. Juani Bermejo-Vega?
That’s what I find exciting — that this is happening! And I meditate on the core of SSiC: a model of access as love.
(CORRECTION 3/11/21: I originally, inaccurately wrote that 92% of our speakers at SSiC weren’t white men.)
References & further reading
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“Colloques, congrès, rencontres : la pandémie accélère le virage virtuel,” CNRS (French), June 2020. http://www.cnrs.fr/fr/cnrsinfo/colloques-congres-rencontres-la-pandemie-accelere-le-virage-virtuel
“Disability on campus: the challenges faced and change needed,” Times Higher Education, May 18 2017. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/disability-campus-challenges-faced-and-change-needed
“Edtech for sustainability: designing conferencing to go digital.” Centre for Innovation, Leiden University, 2020. https://www.centre4innovation.org/events/edtech-for-sustainability-designing-conferencing-to-go-digital/
Adelaine, A., et al., 2020. Knowledge Is Power — An Open Letter To UKRI. Research Professional News. https://www.researchprofessionalnews.com/rr-news-uk-views-of-the-uk-2020-8-knowledge-is-power-an-open-letter-to-ukri/
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Space Science in Context
“Disability Activism & Access in Academia: Divya Persaud & Ellie Armstrong,” PhDivas Podcast, 2020.
“Research in 2020,” iCRAGorama podcast, 2020.
“Space Science, Space Colonialism: Ellie Armstrong & Divya Persaud on #SSiC2020,” PhDivas Podcast, 2020.
Armstrong, E. S., Persaud, D. M., Access-centred virtual conferencing for planetary science and beyond, The Future of Meetings, CSIRO, 15th Sept., 2020 (virtual)
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Persaud, D. M., Armstrong, E. S., Access-centred virtual conferencing for planetary science and beyond: reflections from Space Science in Context 2020, Europlanet Science Congress, 23rd Sept., 2020 (virtual)
Persaud, D.M., “Organizing Access-Centered and Interdisciplinary Conferences,” Women in Space Seminar Series, 29th Oct., 2020 (virtual).
Strauss, B., et al., Nonbinary Systems: looking towards the future of gender equity in planetary science, submitted white paper for the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023–2032, arXiv.