Attending a conference in COVID-19 times

veronica

Veronica Vienne Arancibia, Economics, University of Manchester, 2018 Cohort

A big part of our PhDs involves presenting our research in workshops, seminars and conferences. Unfortunately, they involve social interactions, so most of them were either cancelled or moved online. Although online conferences are a good alternative to show your work to wide audiences, they don’t do very well when it comes to networking. And, let’s face it, it can be a challenge to pay attention to a full day or more of Zoom webinars.

There are new formats, however, that adapt to the new normality and could be adopted permanently, because of the flexibility and benefits they offer.

The Workshop “The Economics of Inequality and the Environment” was intended to be a post-conference event, thought as an opportunity to reunite a small number of PhD students and early career researchers after the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (EAERE) Conference. When EAERE moved online, the Workshop organizers decided to postpone the event instead, and explore other formats.

The event finally took place last week in Leipzig, Germany, with a hybrid format. Twelve of us were in a conference room at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, while around 20 other presenters and many attendees joined us online. They joined us live from America, Singapore, England and France.

All presentations were broadcasted on Zoom, and discussion could take place in person and online. Despite initial fears from the organizers, we enjoyed a lively discussion after each presentation, and everyone could participate in a similar way to an in-person seminar.

All social interactions were in line with current German regulations, so, for example, we had to wear a facemask when ordering food and using communal spaces outside the conference room. Nevertheless, we still had coffee breaks, lunches and dinners as part of the workshop. And, because of the reduced number of in-person presenters, we could really got to know each other and our research, generating a strong network of young environmental economists.

Because of our interest in the environment, a lot of the discussion outside the conference room revolved around the benefits of the hybrid format and how the experience could be replicated in other places. People from remote locations would not have to spend 10+ hours air travelling for a 3-days event, therefore dramatically reducing their carbon footprint. Moreover, those with a tighter budget would save money on travelling and, hopefully, a reduced conference fee. And the in-person attendees had the extra benefit of starting later in the day to adapt to other time zones!

This could be a great way of reducing the carbon footprint related to academia and still enjoy the experience of a conference environment. Sure, it will not be the same social experience for those online – no coffee breaks, lunches or dinners, and therefore reduced networking opportunities – but they are saving time, travel expenses and their impact on the environment without sacrificing valuable comments and feedback they get from interactive and engaging seminars. In other words, they get the same academic experience as if they were in-person.

These kind of hybrid conference formats, such as the one I attended or others discussed by Klöwer et al (2020) in Nature, could be adopted in the long-term, becoming one more of the permanent changes we will see (hopefully not so far in the future) after COVID-19 times.

References:

Klöwer, M., Hopkins, D., Allen, M., & Higham, J. (2020). An analysis of ways to decarbonize conference travel after COVID-19.

Veronica Vienne (@verovienne on Twitter)

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