Pleased To Meet Me: returning to in-person meetings

In-person science meetings are returning.

To the introverts and the carers,

the time-poor and the cash-strapped,

the climate-conscious and the travel-phobic,

the visa-challenged and the real-coffee appreciators,

we had our chance; but in-person science meetings are returning.

It’s a sad fact that during the pandemic, we failed to make virtual events work as a complete replacement for in-person meetings. Despite it being clear that online meetings solve many of the accessibility and sustainability issues that surround in-person events, there’s an appetite for things to return to the way they were. For better or for worse.

So what went wrong?

Well, it was a mix of “zoom fatigue” and the acknowledgement that three key aspects of meetings do not work well in a virtual setting.

  1. Poster sessions weren’t great. These sessions are most important for early career researchers to engage in a meeting.
  2. “Chance encounters” with other participants were hard. was the closest to emulate bumping into someone and stopping to chat.
  3. No time away. It’s hard to attend a multi-day virtual meeting while home and work life surround you. Travelling away somewhere and taking a break from home and work is useful to think deeply about science.

I feel like all other shortcomings were solved, solveable, or temporary. Yes, time zone issues were problematic; yes, the technology sometimes failed; but the benefits of accessibility alone outweighed these issues.

My experience of meetings

I have been to some amazing meetings as a student, postdoc and PI. Each time I came away with new ideas and feeling energised about my work. Attending meetings in far-flung places meant that I have seen more of the world than I would have otherwise been able to. I wouldn’t want to withhold this experience for scientists of the future.

It was clear, before the pandemic hit, that meetings had lost their way. There were too many of them. They had the same superstar speakers at every one. They gave the same old presentation. These jetsetting PIs would fly in and give their talk and fly out again, not even participating in the meeting that invited them. A growing number of companies organised these events. Like the publication industry, they recognised that scientists’ vanity can be exploited to extract money from the public purse. Spam conferences, like spam journals, flourished. As people in the field we were expected to pay to turn up to these events, in the hope that we might bump into someone in the queue for the terrible coffee. And if we didn’t, well there was the FOMO. Not really fear of missing out on hearing some science, fear of missing out on other career-laddering. Meetings were attended by journal editors, funding managers from grant agencies, as well your peers who review your work and grant proposals. And if you’re not in the room…

I understand the urge to rush back to in-person meetings, but given the serious issues that surround these events, what should we do in the future. Is it possible for meetings to “build back better”?

  • Hybrid should be standard for all meetings over a certain size to allow people to tune in from outside.
  • Organisers should consider the environmental impact of the meeting. The sustainability initiative from Company of Biologists aims to collate best practice here.
  • One-day meetings in a small country or region can work well to build a national community with a low-carbon footprint.
  • Organisers should aim for a diverse speaker list, considering gender, race and geography. Talks can be piped in from anywhere in the world if necessary.
  • Put early career researchers at the centre of the meeting. A poster session at 10pm doesn’t cut it. Flash talks, career advice, speed dating chats with PIs, there’s many creative ways to get everyone involved.
  • We can choose which meetings we attend. As a community, we can support meetings that are organised by organisations whose mission is to support science. This is not to say all scientific societies are good and all companies are bad, there’s a mix and we should do due diligence before deciding that a certain meeting is the go-to event for the field.
  • Probably everybody (attendees, speakers and even superstar scientists) should consider how many events they should attend in one year. This would put a natural cap on the number of meetings and focus attendance at community-driven events.

These are just a few ideas. In-person meetings are returning and it would be sad if they returned to be exactly the way they were.

Disclaimer: I am on the Board of Directors for Company of Biologists and I currently Chair the Workshops Committee which organises small focussed events. This post is my own view as an attendee and speaker at meetings. At CoB and at Workshops we are actively working on improving sustainability and accessibility for events we organise.

The post title is taken from “Pleased To Meet Me” the fifth studio album by The Replacements. The cover shows a downtrodden person shaking hands with a rich business person.