The Covid-19 pandemic has propelled the scientific community into a world devoid of in-person conferences. Traditional ‘legacy’ conferences, which have long been the mainstay of academic networking and crucial for catching the latest science, have been largely replaced with virtual events. Moving conferences online is pandemic-proof, and brings myriad other advantages: reduced cost and travel-related carbon emissions, global reach, and increased accessibility for diverse groups. For instance, virtual conferences remove barriers caused by visa restrictions, expensive travel, disabilities, and caring responsibilities. Taken together, these factors can increase the virtual meetings’ diversity, from including students and young parents to attracting scientists from low-income countries and from adjacent research fields.
However, after almost two years of lockdowns and restricted in-person contact, many scientists find that their enthusiasm for virtual meetings is wearing thin. People experience ‘Zoom fatigue’, disengage during long days behind the screen, and struggle to balance meeting attendance with ongoing demands at home or in the lab (Rae et al. 2021). Both anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggest that the focused engagement of attending an in-person event is rarely achieved online. To put it bluntly, without much physical commitment or social pressure, virtual meetings often compete with that overflowing inbox, the home-schooled toddler and growing pile of dishes at home, or a walk outside. They can also lower the chance of staying in the room for a talk that is outside our narrow research focus (‘I’ll skip that less relevant talk and work on my paper for half an hour’), reducing serendipitous discovery. For these and other reasons, many of us crave a return to in-person social interaction, scientific debate and collaboration – as evidenced by the enthusiasm for SfN’s planned 2021 Chicago meeting.
The future of scientific meetings may unfold in various ways.
- Virtual meetings as second tier: the community returns to legacy in-person meetings, including mostly those who were already (and still are) privileged to do so. Virtual conferences stay as a parallel and more inclusive option, attracting those who cannot or do not want to travel. This may lead to a two-tier system, negating benefits to carbon footprints and diversity. Quite likely; to be avoided.
- Travel sparsely: scientists only meet in person for highly focused, small meetings. Scientific mega-meetings are replaced with virtual events. Good, but rather unlikely.
- Best of both worlds: we avoid rushing back to the ‘times before’, and find ways to marry the best aspects of virtual and in-person meetings. Difficult, but worthwhile.
Distributed local meetups
Let’s investigate how to move towards the last scenario. Crucially, the question ‘should we hold a virtual or in-person meeting?’ then becomes ‘what kind of meeting formats can we envision that serves all needs?’ (Figure 1). Hybrid meetings with a simultaneous in-person and virtual attendance will likely lead to the kind of ‘second tier’ meeting described above. Another option are ‘hub meetings’: by choosing multiple locations (where keynotes are streamed and people gather for posters and discussion), a conference’s carbon footprint can be substantially reduced. However, such hubs are still vulnerable to sudden Covid disruptions, and they still require international travel for most participants.
Here I would like to take this idea further, and imagine a virtual conference joined by a network of distributed local meetups. An individual scientist or department organises a lecture hall to show streamed talks, provides small rooms for one-on-one contact with meeting attendees elsewhere, and hosts social gatherings and meals. Such a distributed model allows any location with sufficient interest (and a bit of space) to tune in to large meetings, with several advantages.
Strong local collaboration is combined with face-to-face interaction with a worldwide- virtual community – at a fraction of the carbon emissions and cost. This distributed network is more resilient to Covid disruptions, since local regulations only impact a small group of people (who can then join virtually). It is also inclusive to scientists in low-resource countries (as participating requires little more than an internet connection and space to meet), and people with caring responsibilities (who can go home at the end of the day). Local meetups can be flexibly scheduled around or after the core virtual meeting, for instance to accommodate timezone challenges (i.e. catching up on middle-of-the-night keynotes the next morning). Students can join their first scientific conference in a low-threshold, casual and cheap (often free) way. Most importantly, meeting with local colleagues to watch talks, drink coffee and discuss the meetings’ contents is to many (certainly to the author) infinitely more attractive than another day-long webinar.
What we did & how it turned out
We trialled local meetups at the NeuroMatch Conference 4.0, held in December 2021. After registering for the main meeting, participants were invited to a web portal where they could sign up to host, or to attend a meetup. In total, twelve local meetups were registered (Figure 2) and 81 attendees applied through our portal. While we encouraged hosts to direct potential attendees to our website, it is likely that additional people joined without registering.
Each of the 12 local meetups took a different strategy in organizing. Some took a simple, bare-bones approach: providing a room on campus where talks were streamed. Other organizers provided food, booked a conference room in a hotel, and organized social and networking events such as scientific speed-dating. Meetups were mostly small (up to two dozen participants), perhaps due to space restraints and Covid regulations, or the short time window for registration and advertising.
Experiences from hosts and participants were generally positive. However, we were expecting more meetups, especially in big neuroscience hubs like London or NYC. Why did the enthusiasm for meetings disappoint? A few possibilities:
- After 1.5 years of pandemic, people are exhausted. Plausible, but in contrast with many self-reports on wanting to return to some in-person events.
- Faculty have no time/energy to organize the practicalities, and the logistics of organizing may at first be daunting. Future instructions should emphasize that hosting can be done by students or postdocs, and provide a brief guide/checklist.
- The platform went up too late; we didn’t reach people. Next time, it may help to combine registration for the general conference with that for the meetups.
More suggested improvements for next time:
- Make it easier for hosts to contact attendees, and to advertise to potential attendees (e.g. to email all NMC participants who live close by).
- List all talks/contributions with local co-authors, who can join the meetup and present their work in-person.
The future of meetings
I honestly don’t know, but please let’s not go back to how things were.
I thank the NeuroMatch board and the NMC 4.0 organizing team for discussions and comments, and Titipat Achakulvisut for implementing the great tech behind the meetup portal. Shreya and Nancy at the University of Florida, Aeron at the University of Oxford, Nikola at the Czech Academy of Sciences and Pongsakorn at Mahidol University kindly shared their experiences as NMC4 meetup hosts.
Slides from a talk on this topic: