Coronavirus has disrupted our lives in many ways, personally and professionally. In my job, scientific conferences were forced into virtual environments. The irony is that before the pandemic, more and more online science conferences were being called for. Critics argued that face-to-face meetings were too expensive, cumbersome to hold and harmful to reducing carbon emissions. Over the past few decades, I have curtailed my air travel significantly, in part because of these concerns as well as a general disdain for flying. However, the reality of the pandemic has also revealed many drawbacks of virtual science conferences.
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This article was inspired by a tweet from my colleague Jeff Basara, a professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. Basara is director of the Kessler Atmospheric and Ecological Field Station and Executive Associate Director of the hydrology and water safety program at the University of Oklahoma. He tweeted earlier this week, “I remember the momentum built for online conferencing, but the Covid world taught us that (1) there is a right / wrong way to be virtual and (2 ) that there is a need for personal meetings. “
I’m not here to torpedo virtual science conferences. They are absolutely necessary at a time when COVID-19 continues to devastate society. Virtual conferences:
- Improving access to world class science,
- A level playing field for students and academics who may not be able to afford the total cost of a traditional conference.
- Reducing CO2 emissions related to travel, dining and other conference activities,
- Provide access to a wider range of conference reports and meetings
- Eliminate sprints and marathons in large convention halls.
These are all good things. I have attended several virtual meetings since the pandemic and there have been some outstanding achievements. There have been some pretty bad experiences too. Here are four downsides to virtual science conferencing that I noticed during our shared circumstances in 2020.
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There is no personal interaction. For me, the sidebar conversations, lobby meetings, banter in the exhibition hall, and dinner were some of the most productive aspects of meetings like the American Meteorological Society (AMS), which will be online in January 2021. I have literally recruited fake PhD students into research partnerships who do science and develop socially relevant guidelines or activities in the rooms. My current or former PhD students have often heard me say that you can probably repeat lectures later (at AMS). Don’t let the presentation schedule weigh you down so much that you miss the opportunity to get involved.
Community is lost. Online meetings are functional but can be impersonal. For example, the “Color of Weather” event at the AMS Annual Meeting was an excellent opportunity for various members of the weather company to meet and interact with key executives. The AMS student conference enabled students to sit at tables with the director of the National Weather Service or a top-class broadcast meteorologist. Career fairs, alumni meetings at universities and events in the exhibition hall offer great networking opportunities for all career levels. These possibilities are simply not the same when sitting in front of a computer screen.
Screen fatigue is real. I don’t like the prospect of sitting in front of a laptop or computer for 8 to 12 hours at all. I like to admit that I get a little nervous after a number of Zoom meetings. Many of the online conferences offer a number of meetings and breakout rooms. Let’s keep it real, this can be exhausting. A recent article by Julia Sklar on National Geographic documented how zoom fatigue affects our psyche. A BBC article points out that online engagement requires more focus, creates uncertainties about the camera, and allows for awkward rest periods and technical difficulties. In addition, Manyu Jiang writes about the self-complexity theory, which explains the idea that it can be stressful to put our social, professional and family life side by side in the same room. I’m not at all surprised that kids (K-12 and college) struggle with performance in online learning environments. Ultimately, we are social beings and already stressed out due to the coronavirus threat.
Eric Fournier, director of educational development at Washington University, also places great emphasis on distractions. He said, “One of my problems with online conferencing was multitasking. So the presenter window is in the corner of my screen while I try to listen and do three other work-related things.”
The health of science organizations suffers. This last point may not resonate with most readers. In fact, many people complain about the cost of membership in the professional society and conference fees. As a former president of the AMS, however, it is worth pointing out. Scientific organizations like AMS, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), or the American Association of Geographers (AAG) are vital. It has often frustrated me that some people cannot see the total value of their relatively small investment in these organizations. They provide peer-reviewed access to journals, platforms to disseminate scientific news, guidelines for policymakers, training resources for members, educational materials for K-16 communities, access to careers, and advocacy for solid science (something that has been going on in recent Years when science needed was increasingly undermined). Here is a statement under the line or under the motto “is what it is”. These organizations depend in part on conference revenue. I am concerned about the health of our science organizations.
The pandemic has forced us all to adapt. We’re good at it and usually find new and more efficient ways to do things in times of crisis. This time won’t be any different. However, 2020 has shown that I’m not quite ready to turn down personal science meetings just yet.
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