Although researchers are getting 'Zoom fatigue' just like everyone else, they've learnt to appreciate virtual science conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a poll of more than 900 Nature readers. After navigating a year of online research presentations, the majority of survey respondents 74% think that scientific meetings should continue to be virtual, or have a virtual component, after the pandemic ends. Readers cite the ease of attending from anywhere in the world as a major perk, although they admit that virtual events haven't been able to simulate the networking with colleagues they enjoyed in person.
"I do appreciate the realm of possibilities offered by online conferences," wrote one respondent. "However, I really miss the opportunity to meet people and to interact with friends and colleagues."
It's been a year since the highly publicized first cancellation of a scientific conference as a result of the pandemic. The American Physical Society (APS) called off its March meeting just days before it was set to begin in Denver, Colorado, on 2 March 2020, kicking off a chain of similar cancellations and ushering in a 'new normal' for researchers.
Now, having met the challenge of switching to virtual, conference organizers will have to consider logistically and financially how to blend the best of both worlds by incorporating virtual elements when in-person meetings resume.
A greater reach
Many researchers say that in the past year they have been able to attend more meetings than ever before because of online portals. Of the readers who responded to Nature's poll, 75% had attended multiple virtual meetings since last March, and another 18% had attended at least one.
Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina in Canada, tells Nature that virtual platforms allowed her to attend meetings without compromising her teaching workload or responsibilities as the parent of small children.
And Joan Larrahondo, a civil engineer at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogota, has been excited to attend conferences that were previously impossible to join in person because of travel costs and logistics. He has also been invited to present his research at more meetings than before.
VIRTUAL REALITY. Graphic showing Nature readers poll opinions after a year of attending scientific meetings online.
Next to accessibility, poll respondents said that the lower carbon footprint offered by virtual meetings is their greatest benefit. Case in point: according to one estimate, the 2019 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) which brought more than 25,000 attendees to San Francisco, California produced the equivalent of 80,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide owing to participant travel alone.
"It used to just be a struggle to get conference organizers to even acknowledge the possibility of having a virtual conference," says Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath, UK. Now she's optimistic that scientists will rethink traditional conference models that require participants to "jet around the world" multiple times per year.
More than any other career group, students have enjoyed virtual meetings because of their lower cost, according to Nature's survey. Twenty-seven per cent of student respondents cited cost as a top benefit, compared with about 17% of respondents further along in their careers. Virtual events require no travel, which can be expensive, and often have lower registration fees. For example, the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), which is jointly organized with two other small societies, has lowered its student registration fee from more than US$300 for an in-person event to as low as $10 for the upcoming 2021 virtual meeting.
Despite the benefits of virtual events, they do have drawbacks, researchers say, including screen-time fatigue and time-zone scheduling conflicts. Overwhelmingly, however, researchers agree that the biggest drawback is a lack of networking opportunities.
"The notion that you go to conferences just to get the latest scientific insights is completely outdated," says Teun Bousema, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
Lawler says that the loss of impromptu interactions at online events makes it harder to connect graduate students with other members of her network who might one day serve as mentors or collaborators.
Conference organizers are trying to find workarounds, including formal mentorship programmes that pair early-career scientists with established ones, and virtual 'lobbies' on conference platforms where attendees can meet and greet between presentations. But it's not enough, according to many respondents, including one who told Nature that "virtual platforms suck the soul from true science collaboration".
Still, many respondents told Nature that virtual networking hasn't been all bad. Hawley Helmbrecht, a PhD student in chemical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, says early-career scientists and introverts might find it less intimidating to ask questions during virtual sessions and reach out to new people including prominent scientists than during in-person meetings.
Scientists with disabilities also caution that the benefits of virtual conferences are not black and white. "I have some disabilities that make it way easier to attend from home," one survey respondent wrote, "but I still miss out on the networking and have issues with tech not working well."
An uncertain future
Conference organizers are still working to provide a better virtual experience for scientists, a year after moving online. "It's like flying an airplane while you're building it," says Hunter Clemens, director of meetings at the APS.
But they're also grappling with an uncertain future and financial strife. Some scientific societies don't profit from their in-person conferences and instead organize them on a break-even basis. Others, however, do derive some revenue from the events. Venue cancellations due to the pandemic, in particular, have created financial burdens for societies as they've simultaneously been navigating the logistics of a new virtual world.
Evolutionary biologist Mitch Cruzan at Portland State University in Oregon has been helping to plan the 2021 virtual conference hosted by the SSE, which generally attracts around 1,800 attendees in person. He is worried about the future of his society's small conference. Before the pandemic struck, Cruzan's planning team had booked venues for its annual meetings four years in advance. Now the organizers are trying to renegotiate venue contracts and reschedule future conferences as far out as 2026 to avoid cancellation fees on the order of $100,000. "This experience has demonstrated to us that we're more vulnerable financially than we had thought," says Cruzan.
The novelty of virtual conferences has worn off in the past year, but they are likely to be here to stay, even as in-person events return, says Pamela Ballinger, senior director of meetings and exhibits at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). The AACR Annual Meeting, which usually draws 22,000 attendees in person, will probably be hybrid in 2022. But paying for in-person conference venues as well as a virtual platform is likely to be prohibitive for the society's smaller, specialty conferences, she says.
Still, Larrahondo and others hope that meeting organizers will continue to prioritize the increased accessibility that comes with virtual platforms. Holding future meetings exclusively in person could further disadvantage researchers from countries with low rates of vaccination against COVID-19. Not only would these researchers be vulnerable to infection if they chose to travel without previous immunization, but some might even face travel restrictions without documentation showing that they had received a shot. "It will be sad if we just came straight back to the old way of doing things," he says.