AUSTIN, Texas – The COVID-19 pandemic caused work travel and in person conferences to halt. But new research shows that this shift has made it possible for more people to attend these events and reduced their environmental footprint.
An engineering team from The University of Texas at Austin conducted an analysis of several science conferences that were first made virtual during the pandemic’s early months. Today’s paper is part of a new research paper. Nature Sustainability,The researchers compared virtual conferences to in-person events. They also examined how shifting online could affect women, early-career scientists, and scientists from countries and institutions that are underrepresented.
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.
We were able to bring a lot more people to the table when we went virtual, because it brought in a lot more people that couldn’t be there for in-person events due to cost, time, and other reasons, said Kasey Faust, assistant professor at the Cockrell School of Engineerings Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering.
For scientists from Africa, the cost of attending in-person conferences was between 80% and 250% of their country’s annual per-person gross domestic product. This compares with approximately 3% for U.S. attendees.
In-person events require significant time and cost investments. These events often require travel and can last several days. They also take up all the attendees’ time.
This can be a significant challenge, especially for women. This period of life is often when many people have children. Faust, a mother of two young children, also said that this makes it difficult for women to travel to conferences.
According to the study women participated in virtual conferences by as much as 253% more than they did at in-person conferences. When looking at academia, students and postdoctoral scholars tended to attend more conferences than their colleagues.
The impact of climate change is also enormous. Researchers estimate that a single conference attendee in 2019 had the same environmental footprint than 7,000 virtual conference attendees.
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, an associate faculty in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, said that she was able to network more than ever in the last year.
Researchers from UT Austin and University of Ottawa, Arizona State University as well as Cornell University, University of Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame, University of Southern California, Arizona State University, Arizona State University, University of Arizona, University of Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame, and University of Arizona are part of the team. The study was originally launched to evaluate unexpectedly high success rates. North American Membrane Society(NAMS) annual meeting in 2020, one 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.
Although virtual conferences have many benefits, the study also revealed some challenges. One of the challenges is a lack in engagement and missing out on networking in-person. A majority of conference attendees, 75% at one and 96% at the other, said they prefer in-person networking. They also felt that virtual sessions felt artificial and contrived.
Although in-person conferences are returning, the researchers expect many events that will create hybrid offerings 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.”