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Innovating scientific conferences
Wars have been productive at accelerating innovation—even when the war is against a pandemic. Adrenaline and cash both flow in high gear under the current stress. The transition of meetings to a virtual format has accelerated from a modest pace to becoming the new standard in just four months. The tools were sufficiently developed with the hardware and bandwidth to go “all in” from elementary school to science and medicine.
The last conference I attended in person was in early March in Chicago. It could be my last. Since then, my meeting plans have been cancelled, delayed or have gone virtual. There were worries in early March, as many foreign participants could not get visas and international travel had already been deemed ill-advised. I wasn’t sure I should attend and began to muse about my experience with such meetings since the 1970s, long before email, smartphones and Zoom.
Early in my career, the excitement over conferences was considerable. I could meet leaders in the field, shake their hands and learn from their oral presentations and related Q&As. There were no poster sessions. Presentations relied on 2x2 slides shown on Kodak Carousel projectors. To be invited to present was very special to me then. To break bread with leaders across industry, university and government laboratories mattered. It remains important to be seen and heard in a peer-reviewed world. One had the sense of “arriving” as a respected professional after two decades of schooling. Could I compete?
We would fly to these confabs in DC-9 jets replete with stale cigarette smoke. There has been a lot of evolution along the way, from slides to overhead transparencies to PowerPoint. The first posters on 8.5x11 sheets with rare color evolved to single sheets transported in ubiquitous tubes. The cutting edge moved to electronic posters on flat panel HD displays.
Conferences evolved, but their number one objective faded with the electronic competition. Exclusivity in content and timing disappeared. Attendance diminished for many meetings. Fewer participants would stay for the whole event. For years I’ve observed audiences at technical sessions impolitely playing with laptops and smartphones. “Me too.” Symposia at chemical society meetings were often reduced to the attending speakers by the mid-90s. Much value seemed lost.
Conferences with a trade-show component blew up like a bubble in the 1980s, at times reaching 30,000 attendees. Viruses took full advantage. Today, many find these gatherings an unnecessary distraction from real work. The once-precious content is now available 24/7 globally. A motivation to be seen and to sell and to get the voice of the customer is good, but we now have alternatives.
Using the hub-and-spoke analogy, value remains for vendors selling to other vendors. A central location for press conferences and job fairs is convenient, but at what cost? Local taxes on $300 hotel rooms can surpass my total room charge in 1975. The soap is better. The towels are thicker. The air is much cleaner. In my last years in business management, I’d ask the team “Why are we doing this?” Often the answer would be “We’ll be noticed if we are not there.” Cynics in accounting and engineering would see this as a fun field trip for their colleagues in sales and science. Expense reports reflected that.
There had been a modestly paced evolution until this spring. Now we have revolution. Today I can register for a meeting I might have once gone to for a couple of days and have access to the content asynchronously for a couple of weeks. I can avoid conflict with parallel oral sessions. I can ask questions in chat boxes. I can visit company displays (aka websites) 24/7. Companies are now inventing virtual trade-show booths. I can easily save $2,000+ in travel costs, and more than that in the value of my time. Meeting face-to-face matters, but it ends up being mask-to-mask. Shaking hands is now discouraged and bowing salutations Japanese-style hurts my back.
Virtual Ph.D. dissertation exams. Virtual committee meetings. Virtual seminar visits. Done. Done. Done. Productivity is going up!
I’m advocating for smaller and focused meetings; many can be virtual or have a larger virtual component on the side. It is surely safe to return some meetings from twice a year to once every two years. While I favor free markets, I do not like copycat predatory meetings run by commercial motives. They play off our egos, inviting us to speak and attend to fatten lists on academic CVs. My invitations to speak and chair sessions on topics where I have no validated expertise have been exhausting. Here is where COVID-19 could do a favor to science and engineering. Just say no and stay safe. I’m not going back to the 1980s. Convention centers were overbuilt. A few briefly became hospitals. Maybe that should tell us something.