As research communities emerge from the heavy restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic and look towards a future impacted by climate change, there is an enlivened interest in rethinking the organizational structure of academic conferences. Virtual conferences, which were a marker of the pandemic, offer unparalleled access but fewer avenues for networking and interpersonal communication. Meanwhile, in-person conferences incur large carbon costs due to the required travel and inhibit the involvement of people who would like to take part in the meeting but are unable to physically attend.
During the 2023 SIAM Conference on Applications of Dynamical Systems (DS23), which took place in Portland, Ore., this May, a forward-looking panel contemplated the future of academic conferences. Chair Vivien Kirk (University of Auckland) led panelists Robbin Bastiaansen (Utrecht University), Kate Meyer (Carleton College), Jonathan Rubin (University of Pittsburgh), and Laurette Tuckerman (CNRS) in a discussion about the merits of different conference models, considerations of various travel options, and essential aspects of forming connections as researchers. “We’ve rearranged our commitments to be here at this meeting because it’s valuable,” Kirk said, providing a sentiment that guided the conversation to follow.
All of the panelists noted that their academic institutions either had already implemented or were in the process of developing plans for carbon neutrality and/or other initiatives to address climate change. For instance, Rubin mentioned that the University of Pittsburgh intends to be carbon neutral by 2037 based on multiple pathways, including air travel offsets and alternative travel possibilities. “I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t have to be all or none,” he said. “We just have to be thoughtful about what we do.”
Bastiaansen and Tuckerman both commented on the fortunate fact that their locations within Europe allow them to take trains or other forms of public transportation besides planes to almost any conference within the continent. As such, Tuckerman shared that she has decided not to fly across the ocean to attend a conference without good reason (such as delivering the final invited lecture at DS23). Kirk, however, has a very different experience; since she resides in New Zealand, she must fly everywhere. “The other thing that should be acknowledged is that taking a train can take a lot longer, so it’s not always possible,” she said. Each person’s respective location and situation will determine to what extent they are able to rely on less carbon-intensive forms of transport. Meyer also pointed out that discussions of individual carbon footprints should not remove the blame from industries that have made disproportionate impacts, such as fossil fuel companies.
A panel at the 2023 SIAM Conference on Applications of Dynamical Systems, which took place in Portland, Ore., this May, addressed the future of research conferences in light of new hybrid modalities and carbon costs. From left to right: Robbin Bastiaansen (Utrecht University), Laurette Tuckerman (CNRS), Kate Meyer (Carleton College), Jonathan Rubin (University of Pittsburgh), and panel chair Vivien Kirk (University of Auckland). SIAM photo.
If someone is attempting to reduce their amount of air travel, they might decide to prioritize visiting family (rather than going to meetings), opt to attend conferences that take place in nearby locations or close to hub airports that don’t require inefficient exchanges, and only engage in long-distance travel under special circumstances. Unfortunately, this scenario provides fewer occasions for researchers to directly interact with colleagues from all over the world. “Younger people should have the same opportunities that I did to mix with older people — though it’s tough if no older people come,” Tuckerman said.
Rubin concurred with this point, adding that he has received job offers based on connections from previous SIAM DS conferences. “I do believe that in-person meetings are important,” he said. “It’s important in our field that young and less young people are able to get these opportunities.”
The discussion then turned to hybrid meetings and the particular merits and drawbacks of online components. A virtual option enhances accessibility and allows more people to participate than would otherwise be able to travel to the conference venue. Online participants can often attend more talks, and recordings enable them to view sessions that they initially missed. However, many people feel drained by the excessive screen time that is inherent to the virtual meeting experience, get distracted by their daily household or work environments, and naturally miss the camaraderie of face-to-face socialization. “Here, you can physically bump into lots of people,” Bastiaansen said. “That’s the main issue with online.”
The hub model—in which several simultaneous gatherings take place at locations across the world, with a mix of in-person events and virtual crossover—offers a potential pathway to preserve particularly popular parts of meetings with smaller carbon costs . “When I started learning about the hub model of conferences, I got really excited,” Meyer said. “I think that being in person is so helpful for the community aspect. Maybe there could be a North American hub, with things simultaneously happening in Europe, New Zealand, et cetera with some hybridization.”
Gathering with a local research community at a hub could help people connect outside of their own programs, establish a sense of belonging in their field, and cross-fertilize scientific ideas with other groups. Traveling to a hub also removes attendees from their regular environments so that they can fully immerse themselves in the conference setting; even if they are watching a recorded talk from another hub, they can do so with the feedback of a live audience. While this modality offers fewer opportunities for participants to directly meet with people from around the world, organizers could potentially arrange virtual socialization events that encourage networking across hubs.
The effective implementation of future hub and hybrid conferences will require creativity and flexibility in order to avoid the loss of essential elements. During the discussion, panelists and audience members shared potential ideas to improve different aspects of these meetings — such as ensuring that online-only sessions do not take place on consecutive days. Conference organizers could also accommodate multiple time zones by scheduling the most important sessions over several-hour blocks that have significant overlap with reasonable hours across the world.
Overall, both panelists and attendees agreed that researchers will likely have to change their future behaviors in some ways and remain open to experimentation with different ideas. “Just among this panel, there are very different experiences,” Kirk said. “We’re going to have to accommodate these things.” Organizations and universities will need to be flexible as well when rethinking the way in which conference participation impacts tenure and other career milestones, as experimentation should not hurt the development of people at critical career stages.
For now, SIAM already offers many opportunities for members to become involved with student chapters or regional sections (both localized hubs). And while the future of conferences remains uncertain, many organizers are working on interesting approaches to maintain the spirit of scientific gatherings while accounting for the reality of climate change. “It’s a really hard problem,” Kirk said. “We haven’t found any solutions, but we have lots of ideas.”
 Parncutt, R., Lindborg, P., Meyer-Kahlen, N., & Timmers, R. (2021). The multi-hub academic conference: Global, inclusive, culturally diverse, creative, sustainable. Front. Res. Metr. Anal., 6.
|Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News.