New research shows that the COVID-19 pandemic caused work travel and in-person conferences a halt. However, this shift has made it possible for more people to attend these events and reduced their environmental footprint.
Engineers from The University of Texas at Austin led a research team that examined several science conferences that went virtual in the first months of the pandemic. A new paper was published today in Nature Sustainability,The researchers compared virtual conferences with in-person events to determine the economic, social, and environmental costs. They also looked at how the shift to online conferences affected women, early-career researchers, and scientists from underrepresented countries and institutions.
The study revealed that virtual events are more cost-effective and less time-consuming than traditional conferences that were unable to attract diverse audiences. Virtual conferences eliminate the environmental impact of thousands or hundreds of people flying in from all over the world to attend a conference.
“When we went virtual, that brought a lot of people to the table that couldn’t be there for the in-person events because of time, cost, and other factors,” said Kasey Faust, an assistant professor in Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.
Scientists from Africa paid between 80% to 250% for in-person attendance at recent conferences, compared to approximately 3% for U.S. participants.
In-person events require significant time and cost investments. These events are costly and often take place over multiple days.
This can be a huge challenge, especially for women. This period of life is often when many people have children. Faust, who has two young children, says this makes it difficult to get away from conferences.
According to the study, women’s participation in virtual conferences rose by 253% compared to previous in-person conferences. The study also found that students and postdoctoral researchers were more likely to attend virtual conferences than those who attended in person.
The magnitude of the climate impact is also staggering. Researchers estimate that one attendee at an in-person conference in 2019, based on the analysis of all the conferences, had the same environmental footprints as 7,000 virtual conference participants.
Researchers found that virtual events offer greater opportunities for international participation. However, this is limited by travel documentation and cost. One study found that a mother with small children was unable to travel abroad because she did not have the necessary travel documents.
Manish Kumar, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, stated that she could have more networking opportunities than she had in the past year. This would not have been possible with an in-person conference.
Researchers from UT Austin and University of Ottawa, Arizona State University as well as Cornell University, University of Notre Dame, University of Southern California, University of Notre Dame, University of Arizona, University of Notre Dame, University of Arizona, University of Southern California, University of Arizona, University of Notre Dame, University of Arizona, University of Southern California, University of Arizona, University of Notre Dame and University of Arizona are part of the team. The study was launched initially to evaluate the unexpectedly popular North American Membrane Society’s annual meeting in May 2020. It was one of the first engineering conferences to go online. The study was expanded to include virtual and in-person attendance at the NAMS meeting, as well as other engineering conferences.
While virtual conferences offer many benefits, there are still challenges. One of the challenges is a lack in engagement and missing out on networking in-person. Nearly 75% and 96% of attendees at one scientific conference said they preferred in person networking. Virtual sessions felt fake and contrived.
Although in-person conferences are returning, the researchers expect many events that will create hybrid offerings at lower prices.
Kumar stated that tech companies already do this with their events. “Smart people will mix their events at least partially.”