Virtual conferences are better for the environment and more inclusive

AUSTIN, Texas – The COVID-19 pandemic has cut off work trips and in-person conferences, but new research reveals this change has allowed more people who previously could not attend these events to participate and has reduced their environmental footprint.

A research team led by engineers from the University of Texas at Austin analyzed several scientific conferences that went virtual for the first time in the early months of the pandemic. In a new article, published today in Sustainability of nature, researchers examined the environmental, social and economic costs of virtual conferences compared to face-to-face events and analyzed how the online move has altered the participation of women, early career researchers, and scientists from institutions and countries under-represented.

The study found that virtual events cut costs and cut down on time and travel commitments that previously prevented some conferences from attracting diverse groups of attendees. In addition, the environmental costs of hundreds or thousands of people traveling around the world to attend a conference are eliminated.

“When we went virtual it brought a lot more voices to the table who just couldn’t be there for in-person events due to cost, time and other reasons,” Kasey Faust said. , assistant professor at Cockrell School. of the Engineering Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

The cost of in-person attendance by African scientists at several recent conferences averaged between 80% and 250% of their country’s annual gross domestic product per person, compared with around 3% of gross domestic product per capita for US participants.

In addition to the cost, in-person events also require a huge investment of time. These events require travel, often last several days and keep participants busy during their stay.

This can be a major challenge, especially for women. For many young workers, this time of life tends to be around the time when many have children. This makes it difficult for women to get to conferences, said Faust, who also has two young children.

According to the study, women’s participation in virtual conferences increased by 253% compared to previous in-person conferences. And in academia, student and postdoctoral fellowship attendance has increased to 344%.

The magnitude of the climate impact is also staggering. Researchers estimate that a single in-person conference attendee in 2019, on average out of the conferences analyzed, had the same environmental footprint as 7,000 virtual conference attendees.

The researchers said virtual events open up opportunities for greater international participation, which is limited by cost and travel documents. For example, a woman in the study who is a mother of young children said that she did not have the necessary travel documents to travel outside of her country, which prevented her from attending conferences. in the whole world.

“She could network more than she ever did in the past year, and that would never have happened with an in-person conference,” said Manish Kumar, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Engineering. environmental.

The team includes researchers from UT Austin, University of Ottawa, Arizona State University, Cornell University, University of Notre Dame, and University of Southern California. The study was originally launched to assess the unexpected success of the North American Membrane Society (NAMS) annual meeting in May 2020, one of the first engineering conferences to go virtual. The authors expanded the study to compare in person with virtual attendance at the NAMS meeting and several other engineering conferences.

The study found many benefits to virtual conferences, but challenges remain. Among them is the lack of engagement and the lack of in-person networking. About 75% of attendees at one science conference and 96% at another said they preferred in-person networking and that virtual sessions felt inauthentic and contrived.

In-person conferences are starting to return, but researchers expect many events to create hybrid offerings, potentially at lower prices.

“Tech companies are already doing this with their events,” Kumar said. “Smart people will hybridize their events at least to some extent. “

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