A five-hour “pop-up” conference in November set out to get the benefits of a face-to-face meeting without the dramatic climate impact of an international gathering, and hired a psychologist to assess how well they did.
The November meeting of the European Biological Rhythms Society (EBRS) “was an experiment to test the feasibility of making scientific meetings virtual, in a bid to cut the heavy carbon footprints created by attendees’ air travel,” Nature reports. While “organizers of academic and other international meetings have begun experimenting with ways to offset or cut down on carbon emissions,” this session was “one of the first to take a systematic approach to retaining a key benefit of traditional meetings: networking and face-to-face contact,” the prestigious journal adds in its news report.
“We are now busy analysing the outcome, but at first glance it seems to have been more successful than I had dared hope,” said organizer Martha Merrow, a circadian biologist at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU).
Nature says the organizing team “invited psychologists to evaluate whether technology and organizational techniques can help to aid interaction and networking, for example by enabling seamless discussion across different locations, and encouraging participants at all sites to hold social events.” But participants from 32 countries have already identified advantages that go “beyond simply cutting carbon—for instance, parents who might find it difficult to arrange travel could attend.”
The experiment unfolded when scientists across many disciplines are beginning to “think hard about the carbon footprints of their globetrotting activities,” Nature adds.
“Our work tends to be dominated by international meetings and flights,” said climate scientist Corinne Le Queré of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. “We need to have a plan to reduce emissions by carrying out our work differently.”
While Nature lists similar attempts at past conferences, reporter Alison Abbott says the inclusion of the psychologists made the EBRS meeting a “more advanced experiment”.
To test the approach, Abbott says Merrow chose a hot topic for participants—the influence of circadian rhythm on metabolism. She mobilized a collection of presenters who were based in and around Munich and recruited a keynote speaker, University of California, Irvine circadian biologist Paolo Sassone-Corsi, who happened to be in Europe while the conference was going on.
“Six short talks were repeated before and after his speech to ensure that participants in all the time zones could listen to them, whether in the morning or late evening,” Nature writes. “Three of the speakers travelled to Munich by train or car, and Merrow bought carbon offsets to compensate for the drive.”
Sessions were broadcast via high-quality, two-way video to virtual hubs in Tel Aviv, Zurich, Boston, Tokyo, and Porto Alegre, Brazil. Then another 69 smaller hubs enabled groups of researchers to watch one-way video broadcasts and send back their questions or comments via Twitter. The event ended up with 450 participants, 10% more than the EBRS’ main annual conference in August, with nearly 60% signing on through the Twitter interactive hubs.
Merrow and LMU psychologist Anne Frenzel are still evaluating the virtual format, but some conclusions are taking shape. “Aside from cutting emissions, participants mentioned advantages of the virtual meeting, including not losing time and energy to travel, and students being able to attend for free,” Naure writes. “Scientists in Brazil and Israel mentioned that it released them from the bureaucracy involved in booking flights to attend overseas conferences.”
“This is not only about carbon footprints,” Merrow said. “It also offers a huge opportunity to think innovatively about how scientific discussions take place.”