Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the conference experience for researchers around the globe as scientific societies canceled in-person meetings and scrambled to hold virtual events in their place—with varying success. Now, as vaccines become more widely available, particularly in the United States, some of those societies are grappling with a new challenge: when and how to safely get conference attendees into the same room again while maintaining the accessibility and wide reach virtual meetings afford.
Many are opting to stay virtual. But this summer and fall, a handful of U.S. societies are taking the plunge and planning “hybrid” meetings, which will convene in a physical location and also allow for virtual participation. It's a significant undertaking, often involving two separate planning teams and greater expense—and the risk that virtual attendees won't get the full benefit of the meeting. But many are optimistic it will pay off. “We're going to take the best of both worlds and try and smash them together in a way that makes sense,” says Nate Wambold, director of meetings and conferences for the American Anthropological Association (AAA). (For its 2022 annual meeting, AAAS, Science's publisher, will also adopt a hybrid format.)
If these hybrids succeed, they could serve as a model for what scientific conferences could look like in years to come. “All the organizations that run meetings … will have to revise the concept,” says Guy Brasseur, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology who is serving as the program committee chair for the American Geophysical Union's (AGU's) annual meeting, scheduled to convene in New Orleans in December. He likens the situation to the digital publishing shakeup: “When we went from paper publication to electronic publication, that was a revolution for the community. Now we are in the middle of thinking, ‘What is going to be the conferences of the future?’”
Plans for meetings' in-person components are still being ironed out. But persistent COVID-19 spread makes it likely they'll look much different than in years past. Current proposed policies include requiring masks when attendees aren't eating or drinking and promoting social distancing, for instance by spacing lecture hall seats 2 meters apart and breaking up poster sessions into more exhibit halls than previously. Attendees may also be barred from serving their own coffee. “It's really important for our attendees to not only be safe … but [also] for them to feel safe,” says Wambold, who is organizing AAA's first ever hybrid meeting in Baltimore in November. None of the conference organizers Science spoke with have currently decided to require proof of vaccination for in-person attendance, although some are considering taking that step.
At the same time, “The virtual audience can't be second class citizens—they have to be included,” says Lauren Parr, vice president of meetings for AGU. The current plan is that all scientific sessions at the AGU meeting will be open to virtual attendees, either through livestreaming or by recording the sessions and making them available online. Organizers are also exploring the idea of organizing “watch parties” for virtual attendees who live in the same area—“to bring them together too so they get a bit of both,” Parr says.
Other societies are taking a different approach. “What hybrid means to us is there's an in-person meeting and then there's a virtual meeting, and there's a little bit of … digital overlap,” says Robin Preston, director of meeting operations for the American Chemical Society, which is scheduled to host a hybrid conference in Atlanta in August. Virtual attendees will pay a reduced registration fee, but they won't have access to all in-person events. “We're not, from a cost standpoint, able to livestream everything,” Preston says.
We’re going to take the best of both worlds and try and smash them together.
AAA is planning something similar. “We're doing all we can to blend those spaces and blend those experiences in creative ways,” Wambold says—noting that organizers are planning a series of “live from Baltimore” events, which will include moderated questions from the online audience. But, “To do that for every one of our sessions in 30 meeting rooms … would be cost prohibitive for us.”
AAA's virtual attendees will benefit from lessons learned during the society's virtual “test” in 2020, when it canceled its annual meeting and held a series of virtual events instead. “We knew that reading papers on a Zoom call would be about as entertaining as watching paint dry,” Wambold says, so “we wanted to get people away from the normal ways of thinking about how to engage with their work and engage with one another.” The society ended up holding a series of roundtable discussions, debates, and interviews. Those types of sessions will be incorporated into this year's meeting—both on-site and virtual—and will likely continue for the society's meetings going forward.
By offering a virtual option, societies hope to ease attendance for people like Laura Na Liu, a physics professor at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. She would love to attend this year's fall meeting of the Materials Research Society—a hybrid meeting in Boston that she is co-chairing—in person. She'll be fully vaccinated by then. But she's not sure she'll be able to because she has a 1-year-old daughter at home. “It's difficult to balance the traveling and then this entire crisis.” So, she may be part of the virtual audience. As for the likelihood of hybrid or in-person meetings closer to home, she points to the slower vaccination in most of Europe as the major hurdle. “We will have to wait a little bit more.”
Divya Persaud, a Ph.D. student at University College London who has a chronic illness that makes conference attendance challenging, hopes the virtual format outlasts the pandemic. She co-authored an opinion piece in October 2020 arguing that virtual options ease attendance for many scientists, including those with caregiving responsibilities, disabilities, and limited funds. “I really, really hope that we continue to have the conversation about what virtual can bring,” she says.
For the foreseeable future, AGU organizers plan to stick to the hybrid format; they think a virtual option will boost international attendance and appeal to researchers at the edge of what the society specializes in. “AGU wants to be … more interdisciplinary,” Brasseur says. “So that's an opportunity.” For instance, an economist who is interested in global change might not have time to travel to an in-person meeting, he says. But if they can attend virtually, it may lower the bar enough for them to participate.
Conversations about how to enable virtual meeting attendance aren't new. AGU, for instance, started those discussions long before the pandemic because many of its members expressed an interest in greater accessibility and reducing the annual meeting's carbon footprint. “That was always in our plan,” Parr says, “and the pandemic was a huge accelerator and a disrupter.”