On the return of in-person conferences (s03e05)

🔈This is the transcript of the Open Update. Find the original audio on Anchor.fm.

[00:00:00] Chris Hartgerink: Hi and welcome to the Open Update. This is a show to help us and you calibrate our senses to the power imbalances in research and the world.

For Liberate Science, I'm Chris Hartgerink

[00:00:12] Sarahanne Field: I'm Sarahanne Field.

[00:00:15] Chris Hartgerink: Today we will be talking about in-person conferences. They're making a serious comeback. Yet there are also serious reasons that that is an issue. We might think about the pandemic which, if you haven't heard about, it did happen over the course of three years. It's still ongoing for quite a lot of people. There's also the climate crisis.

We want to dive into that topic today to also share some ongoing thoughts, how we deal with that. We would love to also hear from you how you think about this in the day-to-day, because it's an ongoing topic and it probably is gonna become even more important over time, but we want to make sure to continue the conversation.

Sarahanne,  have you said no to conferences recently that are going back to in person?

[00:01:05] Sarahanne Field: I have. I and a colleague of mine had got a proposal accepted for the Meta Science Conference. Instead of feeling that usual, "oh, cool, now we get to do something fun at a cool conference," my stomach kind of dropped. I thought, "oh" and then I thought, "whoa, hang on a minute. Let's, let's stop and interrogate that feeling."

Why am I feeling negative about this? This is a good thing. I realized that there were a couple of factors that are swimming around in my mind that that made me feel negative about coming to this conference.

The first thing is that it was in person in Washington. So we're talking about a long haul international flight. I have two children, so my carer responsibilities are quite important to my lifestyle right now. That alone for me was a really big factor.

After we've been through the pandemic, I'm still someone who wears a mask in trains and in crowded public places. For me, it's been quite a while since I've attended a proper conference in person. My feelings over the course of those three years has really changed. Over that period of time, I've come to realize that I value the fact that I can participate so easily and so well in online or virtual conferences.

Just the idea of coming back to in person from being able to attend a conference from my desk at home without having to take a long haul flight, for example, that juxtaposition was really quite striking to me.

In-person attendance just doesn't have that same pull that it used to.

[00:02:38] Chris Hartgerink: I remember before the pandemic, there was a period where, when I was with Mozilla, I flew much more. I flew, maybe even for just a few days to San Francisco. Today I would probably not make that decision because of also the changed circumstances in the world, but in a way also the same circumstances, but they've become more visible to me.

I set a certain set of rules for myself and also for my business to be okay, if we want to go to events or if we want to run events, there have to be certain rules that they stick to.

Part of it is that there is no flying involved because this is a big contributor of course, to the climate crisis, but also in a very relational way, the pandemic highlighted who can attend. It's not just a cost factor in terms of the environment, but also who has the option to attend?

It's in terms of the finances to fly long haul flight flights, it's in terms of health, who has the health to go on a long haul flight, which is a vector for disease transmission. Who has the opportunity, the time and the resources to get the visas to go somewhere.

We started out the podcast saying the pandemic and the climate crisis as if these two are separate, but they aren't, they're very interrelated. The pandemic can happen because the climate crisis is happening. The top line there is, climate crisis, and the way we handle biodiversity is increasing the risk of new diseases, transferring to humans that are deadly in a way.

I'm also somebody who wears a mask indoors still. I tend to be the only one, and I noticed that it creates a distance between me and the people who attend. I've had people who I've known for five years just look straight through me at an in-person conference because I was wearing a mask. Nothing against them as individuals, but it did make me feel less invited.

I even have the option to go to conferences. But then there's a lot of people who don't get the option to go and they completely miss out on it. Or they might choose to go, but they need to find certain circumstances in which they can attend. And they aren't as invited or they're not tended to as much.

[00:05:11] Sarahanne Field: Even if you do have access to the resources, issues with visas and as you say, issues with mobility, issues with chronic illness or with carer responsibilities like in my case, these kinds of people live with not feeling invited, and have done for decades .

That's something that really stuck with me. I thought this isn't how it should be, you know? And if we're talking about research being representative of the knowledge that is produced and co-produced by the world, and yet people from so many different walks of life can't participate, that to me is a problem. That's especially a problem when it comes to science reform. It's especially a problem because in my opinion, people who are interested in bettering science should be also interested in bettering inclusion.

For me to see, especially, open science, meta science reform, science conferences coming back to in person as though nothing has changed. That's, that's really disappointing.

In a small way, my not going to Meta Science is activism because I'm thinking "no, I wanna do this better. We can do this better. We know that doing conferences online is possible."

It's not only that I've really been thinking more and more about my own carbon footprint. And I was reading in an article not that long ago, just on Euro own news, that prior to the start of the pandemic, the global conference industry was contributing, the same annual greenhouse gas emissions as the entire United States per year, which is absolutely mind blowing.

And apparently according to a study from I think one or two years ago, shifting conferences from the regular in-person venue to online platforms can reduce that carbon footprint by 94%. That's enormous. So the inclusivity part, which is very salient for me, putting that aside, the carbon footprint thing alone is a real huge drawback for me with in-person.

[00:07:22] Chris Hartgerink: I'm gonna push back on that on two fronts. There's gonna be people who say that it's part of their life so much that they don't want it to go away. I don't agree with that personally.

For a lot of people, they wouldn't wanna live on the virtual side of things.

I hear you on the carbon footprint and I'm very big on making sure that, for example, the work that I do has numbers attached to the behaviors, which isn't everything, and to understand how do my individual choices contribute or reduce the problem.

At the same time, I also want to sketch a bit of the historical context that the idea of the carbon footprint of an individual was a PR stunt to shift blame from businesses to individuals. Now with conferences, it's a bit in between. You're part of an organization that contributes to the problem.

It's not just about the emissions, it's also about the, airports need to be built, which means woods need to be cut down and then, entire species need to be displaced.

Which is all to say I'm pushing back a bit because I can imagine some listeners going "Hey, but this point or that point, might not be as relevant for me" or, I disagree with. But then also to highlight that you can still come to the same position in the end, which also in a way relates to this idea that you said, okay, we can go virtual.

When I did my PhD defense, they always said it needed to be in person. They said, "no, no, it has to be in person. It has to be in person." Then the pandemic hit and all of a sudden everything went virtual and it was possible and the infrastructure was there.

For me it didn't really matter all that much. I physically can travel. I have that privilege. I have the resources to say, "okay, I can protect myself and get prophylaxis for these airborne diseases."

There's this is book the Viral Underclass and they say prophylaxis is anything that protects you from a disease or a virus, including, not just masks or condoms, if it's STDs, but also your economic status or your whiteness in that sense.

The PhD defense going digital all of a sudden reminded me of a story of somebody who I know, a friend of mine. They have an illness and they wouldn't be able to attend lectures at university. They would ask somebody to make a recording of the lecture so that they could watch it at their own pace because they weren't sure whether they could attend. Then they would get reprimanded because it wasn't allowed. But the university was also not providing any options for them to attend.

I spoke about not feeling invited to a to a conference as much. I can get over that. But if you can't even participate in the things that are critical to your degree or your career, then it seems like it's a no-brainer to do these things, and yet it isn't.

With this return to in-person conferences, there is this idea, okay, in person can be better for getting to know each other or to make connections because you can just bump into each other literally, or, figuratively.

But then there's the aspect of that these in-person conferences are also more and more just solely in-person and they have no virtual option whatsoever. Because, I can imagine if you had the option to go to Meta Science, virtually in that sense, and you could do your presentation that way, that you would be much more likely, or am I wrong?

[00:11:04] Sarahanne Field:  My colleague and I have already discussed that she will be going. She thought what we can do is have you on my computer, zoomed in. We're kind of creating our own hybrid method. So that to me is a really great way of doing it.

The individual versus the collective is a real, it's a tricky one because of course, putting the onus on the individual is difficult. Especially say if we're talking about early career researchers who are maybe encouraged by their supervisor or their PI to go to these conferences to raise their profile to, to talk to people, to maybe look for opportunities to collaborate.

I can see how putting this sort of moral onus on the individual ECR in this case, that that's tough for them.

It might be really just hard for them to do this, even if they may feel morally as though this is their responsibility as a researcher, there are other forces involved, but I think what you've said is right that there's a hybrid option.

So you have this choice that you can go, but you also have the choice to not go if your means allow you to attend.

Having the hybrid option is crucial going forward, to ensure both inclusivity and also to accommodate people who do use these kinds of opportunities as really good ways to network with colleagues and with potential collaborators.

[00:12:27] Chris Hartgerink: The belonging is incredibly important, and this also makes me really think about this culture shift. We don't need to do it, but the question is, do we want to make that culture change?

I'm reminded of the Public Health Pledge. So this is specifically related more to the pandemic side of things and maybe less related to the climate crisis part of things, at least not directly. They pretty much said, in the 2010s, there was this whole culture shift around code of conducts. More and more projects and event started including code of conducts, which before wasn't a thing at all.

They proposed, to do something similar for the health part of an event. Let's create a public health pledge just like codes of conduct. Events can utilize that to set some ground rules for people to understand, okay, what is the expectation that we can have with respect to an event?

When I get invited, I ask, "do you have a code of conduct?"

And maybe I'll start asking also around what are your, if it's in person, what are your health measures in that sense? And one of the things that really stood out to me in this one, and I think this is very, very critical, also with respect to both people feel invited to go to meetings if they have health concerns or for whatever reason, it says: the event has a health and safety policy, and if the policy changes, it is only strengthened, never weakened.

This is such a critical point in terms to having the event, to really follow through on the commitments. If you are at high risk, if you are immunocompromised, there are too many events, too many organizations that say, "yeah, we'll have these strict rules," and then people go there and then they aren't strict at all. Then people can't attend despite making all these plans.

But I really like your point around, almost this guerilla attendance that you're creating at the Meta Science Conference. They're not offering it, so you're just creating it for yourself. It's definitely a form of activism in that sense.

[00:14:42] Sarahanne Field: What I'm concerned most about is that conferences seem to just be falling back into in-person attendance only without thinking about it.

And that for me is just a big part of what science reform is about. But also just being a researcher is really about interrogating the choices we make and making sure that if we're doing something it's reasoned that it's principled.

I like the idea of having these codes of conduct and sticking to them and only strengthening them cuz this has this element of forethought We're thinking about what we're doing and the reasons for which we are doing that, instead of just falling back to the status quo.

[00:15:15] Chris Hartgerink: That's a really good segue also to a question to our listeners is what might your rules or boundary conditions be for the events that you might want to go to? Because if you have those, you might be able to say, okay, this falls outside of those conditions and now I'm just gonna say I'm not gonna go there.

And what I've personally noticed is that it, this has a huge benefit, because it reduced my fear of missing out drastically. It allowed me to simply say, "okay, this is not within my conditions, so this is a hard no for me."

Sarahanne, before we close out, any final thoughts?

[00:15:59] Sarahanne Field: Think about what you're doing before you do it. Decide does this coincide with or does this align with the way that I wanna see science being conducted, being done going forward. Who am I reviewing for? Who am I giving talks for? What conferences am I going to? Where are they and what's the kind of content I'm producing?

Before you just decide to jump in and attend a conference in person, consider what the implications are for maybe doing it hybrid or for maybe asking for a hybrid option, for the conference organizers, for example.

Think about why you're doing certain things. That's what I would say.

[00:16:36] Chris Hartgerink: And that's us for today's podcast. So thanks to everybody for taking the time to listen in. We definitely appreciate it.

In the show notes, you can now find a link to a Signal group, where you and we can discuss new topics and perspectives for the open update, where you can also send us voice messages, they might be featured on the show.

And we can simply continue the conversation beyond just this, biweekly podcast episode.

Look in the show notes to find the link. Join us in this signal group and we'd be happy to start broadening the conversation together with you.

In any case, until the next episode!

On the return of in-person conferences (s03e05)
Liberate Science GmbH April 10, 2023
Recap: Into the Fediverse