Face-to-face conferences a luxury the planet can no longer afford

Covid-19 has proven the feasibility of online conferences. But as we emerge from the pandemic, will we slip back into our old ways?

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(Clockwise from top left) Chelsea Miya, Oliver Rossier and Geoffrey Rockwell are co-editors of a new essay collection that makes the case for eco-conscious approaches to academic research—including rethinking the need for in-person conferences. (Photo: Supplied)

As a conference co-ordinator, Oliver Rossier couldn’t believe the sheer waste of time, money and carbon it took to fly an international scholar to Edmonton for a one-hour lecture.

“I tried to set up workshops with graduate students and other researchers the following day, but he had to get on a plane right after his talk,” said the senior officer for the Arts Collaboration Enterprise in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts.

“He was in airplanes longer than he was on the ground.”

Rossier and colleague Geoffrey Rockwell – renowned professor of philosophy and digital humanities – have been advocating for virtual academic conferences for years, most notably with their annual Around the World online conference on digital culture, hosted by the U of A’s Kule Institute for Advanced Study.

“Face-to-face conferences are a valued ritual that needs to be rethought given the carbon cost of air travel,” said Rockwell. “We in the academy need to take responsibility for our institutional actions in the face of climate change.”

The problem of in-person conferences, and the responsibility to deal with it, are among the topics in Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocenea collection of essays the two are releasing along with doctoral candidate Chelsea Miya.

Contributors to the collection – which includes academic articles, photo essays and installations – take eco-conscious approaches to research, from recycling lab waste to measuring computational energy.

“If you are an academic administrator or concerned about the sustainability of the practices in your discipline, this book will give you ideas about how universities can change for the better,” said Rockwell.

The inescapable albatross of Right Researchhowever, is the conventional, in-person academic conference. When Around the World launched in 2013 to challenge that model, it was considered an “experiment” to see whether virtual conferences could actually work.

The numbers proved impressive. The online conference hosted 44 researchers from 12 countries who gave 260 presentations each year, saving more than $240,000 in-flight costs, almost five million km of travel and an average of 300 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

That’s equivalent to burning energy for 32 homes, or driving 64 passenger vehicles for one year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“In other words, the carbon footprint avoided by the e-conference model amounted to nearly one-quarter of all conference presenters not driving their cars for a year,” said Rossier.

COVID-19 has thrown all of this into stark relief, as people around the world are discovering the benefits – and limits – of connecting virtually. But even as recently as 2019, the idea of convening online was a hard sell, Rossier said.

“People kept saying you cannot run conferences online. I offered to present the idea to a national body that looks at how universities are run, arguing that e-conferencing not only saves a lot of money but makes the content and research much more accessible.

“I was turned down – they wouldn’t even talk about it as a topic.”

This despite the fact that flying accounts for roughly a third of the carbon emissions produced by a typical academic institution, according to one study out of UC Santa Barbara.

Looking at its own carbon footprint, the California university found that air travel by its academics annually released more than 55 million pounds (25 million kg) of CO2 or equivalent gases directly into the upper atmosphere – the equivalent of the annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines.

It’s a staggering contribution to global warming. But beyond the environment, in-person conferences can reinforce systemic hierarchies, since it’s often only the privileged who can travel.

“E-conferences can challenge the traditional hierarchies we see in academia – how some are excluded from the conversation,” said Miya.

“We had participants (in Around the World) joining us online from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. To come down to Edmonton would have cost thousands of dollars.

“There are geographic barriers, political barriers and financial barriers,” added Miya. “As a graduate student, I feel that keenly because a lot of us are relying on small grants or bursaries to get to these conferences, and it’s not always possible.”

One argument in favour of meeting in person is the value of “hallway conversations,” those spontaneous, serendipitous moments of human contact that spawn fruitful research relationships.

But the pandemic is demonstrating that in-person contact isn’t always necessary for informal bonding, said Miya.

“Zoom has challenged the idea that we can’t form significant relationships, including scholarly relationships, online. We have to figure out different ways of creating those hallway conversations and different ways of creating those informal spaces.”

One lesson Rockwell took away from his experience creating online forums: don’t try to replicate a face-to-face format online.

“Instead we learned to take advantage of the online format so we could handle speakers in different time zones and include new features like closed captioning for translation.”

In Rossier’s estimation, the academy has been experiencing an “e-conferencing renaissance” of sorts during the pandemic.

“Think about the number of ways we’ve changed the online format in just one year – hallway conversation zones of various kinds, breakout rooms, various levels of audio and written chat functions.

“We can also have secondary channels for communication by using social media, so we can have several layers of conversations simultaneously.”

Online conferences also provide a record of interactions for posterity that enable ongoing discussion, added Miya, whereas face-to-face interaction can be fleeting and easily forgotten.

“Some of those can be so fascinating, and you can look back on them and continue to build. So the conversation actually continues after the conference is over.”

As we emerge from the pandemic and from the digital meeting spaces to which we’ve adapted of necessity, however, there is a danger of sliding back into wasteful old ways, warn Rossier and Miya. They hope their book will provide a blueprint for how to keep the online momentum alive.

“The decisions we make now about our habits and research practices are going to impact the years going forward,” said Miya. “We have to make sure we don’t just double down on our bad habits and go right back to everything we used to be doing before.”

The model that makes the most sense in the immediate future is the hybrid conference, the authors argue, with locals attending in person and those from out of town appearing virtually.

“We shouldn’t require people to physically be in a room to share their ideas,” added Rossier.

“We need to keep pressure on both our own institutions and internet providers to create platforms for sharing ideas online and create new hallway conversation zones for the next generations of academic research.

“Hybrid conferences combine in-person and online connections, that should be the standard for future academic conferences. Now we all know it can be done!”

| By Geoff McMaster for Troy Media

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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