Sunday, July 24, 2011

Is it time to start holding virtual conferences? The case of the International Coral Reef Symposium

The only thing hotter than the U.S. and Canada (east of the Rockies!) in the past week was the discussion on the Coral-List, the NOAA-managed read by pretty much anyone that does research related to coral reefs, about the cost of attending next year’s International Coral Reef Symposium. The ICRS is THE meeting in the world of coral reef research. Thanks to the Olympian once-every-four-years timing, attendance is, I’d argue, as mandatory as it comes in the sciences. Miss an American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting, and you can attend another in six or twelve months. Miss an ICRS, and, well, you’ve got four full years to train for the next one.

The full week registration fee for the meeting has been set at AU$960 - AU$1250, depending on membership in the scientific society and the date of purchase. While registration fees of $1000 or more are not unheard of for scientific meetings in other branches of research, like say medicine, the price is extraordinary for the natural sciences, and especially for a sub-field in which many of the researchers are based in developing countries. Naturally, people from small NGOs in SE Asia to large academic instituions in North America are upset and stating that they will not attend.

Shocking as they be to many, the real story is not the registration fees. The real story is is the travel.

In addition to timing, the ICRS shares a logistical challenge with the Olympics. There is no optimal site for the event. Coral reefs are found throughout the tropics and subtropics, and that is excluding the cold water reefs in places like our own BC coast. Coral reef researchers are even more widespread, with scientists dotting every continent save Antarctica (I think - anyone at McMurdo care to correct me here?). No matter where the ICRS is held, be it Florida (2008), Okinawa (2004) or Bali (2000), a majority of top researchers in the field will have to travel long distances to attend. That means a lot of money – I estimate a weeklong trip to Cairns for the meeting from this part of the world could cost CAN$3500-4000 with registration. Moreover, that means a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. All for a scientific meeting about an ecosystem which many argue is existentially threatened by climate change and ocean acidification.

Hence the question on many people’s minds. Should the ICRS go virtual?

Of any scientific conference, there are certainly strong arguments for making the ICRS virtual: no optimal location for the meeting, cost being a significant barrier for many potential participants, travel restrictions being problematic (e.g. Middle East researchers requiring special visas for places like the U.S. and Australia), and of course the subject of conference being sensitive to atmospheric CO2. A counterargument is that the meeting is held only once every four years, in part for some of these very reasons, so rather than make ICRS virtual, other annual meetings should go virtual and adopt an Olympic schedule for the “live” meetings. A compromise first-step would be a hybrid meeting in which people had to option to participate "live" or online.

Society has adapted quickly to tectonic shifts in the way we communicate. Virtual conferences, which so many disdain for missing that personal connection of a live meeting, will become perfectly normal to us at some point in the future, just as e-mail, web browsing, Google Earth, Facebook, and Twitter have. It's a question of when, not if.

My question is: Which scientific society is willing to be the early adopter?


EliRabett said...

Strikes Eli that an intermediate step could be linked satellite conferences (with a virtual bar scene, just think about it, Eli could be as thin as Simon:)

Anonymous said...

A similar question was posed on this blog back in July 2008, to which I replied:

"How about setting a shining example for the rest of the world and holding the ICRS virtually? The technology does exist, and not only would it cut back on all of the carbon emissions from thousands of folks flying all over the world, but would allow a far greater number of people to "attend". Yeah, it's a whole different way of doing business, but that's the point. We need big moves, not just new light bulbs.

If anyone at ICRS would like to seriously entertain this idea, I am closely associated with the CEO of an award-winning video conferencing company who maintains that such an undertaking is well within the capabilities of current technology. I would be happy to act as liaison."

All of this still stands, 3 years later. I sent the same information to the ICRS planners at the time when they were soliciting location ideas for the next meeting. Needless to say, the virtual conference idea fell on deaf ears (and I know that I am just one of many who suggested it, so it's not a fringe idea).

I'll just add that another benefit of doing these virtually is that you can also offer the information to the PUBLIC. We often debate how to reach out to and educate the public about coral reef science and issues, and bemoan their lack of awareness -- by making portions of these materials free to the public you stand a better chance of engaging them.

Michele Miller

Stephen said...

I think the writing has been on the wall for some time now in terms of the need to find an alternative to in-person conferences. One of the big hurdles, though, is the amount of money involved; not necessarily in terms of the scientific or academic bodies charged with organizing these conferences, but the conference industry as a whole. The amount of revenue to the hospitality industries associated with conferences and conference travel must truly be immense (anyone care to find figures on this)?

So, on top of institutional inertia, there's going to be a lot of resistance from other quarters as well. I'd imagine that some businesses (if not some cities) live and die by conference business.

Simon Donner said...

I think Stephen has provided part of the answer to the question in the previous comment. Technology is challenging the funding model for scientific meetings and publications, just as it is challenging the funding model for the media. We probably need to figure out the new funding model before successfully shifting to the virtual conferences.