Remote conferences and flying less

This is a guest post from Emma Despland.  You might remember her from “Covid-19, Mystery Novels, and How Science Works“ and from “The other crisis of 2020”.

I’ve just been invited to participate in a symposium at the 2022 Meeting of the International Union for the Study of Social Insects to be held in San Diego. My first thought is, yes, I’d love to go! This is a great opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, meet researchers whose work I really respect, and do some fun science! But I’m not sure about flying there…

Because I’ve been trying to fly less.  My University has recently put in place a flying less plan, driven by a colleagues in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment in collaboration with the Climate Emergency Committee.  However, this is hard to reconcile with the current culture and established expectations in academia.

In February 2020, I made two trips, just before we all stopped travelling. For the first trip, I had one meeting in Ottawa followed immediately by another in Toronto. I had initially bought train tickets, but then the Wet’suwet’en conflict escalated to a rail blockade. So I car-pooled with friends to Ottawa. For the Toronto meeting, I was contacted by a travel agent who wanted to book me a flight. I said I preferred not to fly. She said she could reimburse my gas expenses if I drove.  I said I would take the bus. There was a pause. She said she couldn’t book bus tickets. So I reserved my own ticket, took the bus and presented my ticket for reimbursement. I don’t know what she thought of this exchange. When I do things like this, I always hope I’m challenging car culture (and plane culture) and normalizing surface public transport, but I suspect I don’t carry much weight as an influencer.

The second trip was to a forest pest management conference in Halifax – I looked into my options.  It would take 12 hours to drive (1200 km), 22 hours by train, 19 hr by bus (with several changes) or 1 h 30 min by plane.  I gave up and took the plane. But when I got there, I found out that a friend had braved the 22 h hr train ride and he said that it wasn’t bad. He got a lot of work done on his laptop.  So I told myself I can do this too, but was still irritated by the dispiriting options*.

Then in March 2020 we all stopped travelling. Most of us who are academics attended a few online conferences this past year.  Some were better organized than others. Some experimented with new formats that wouldn’t have worked in person: like holding presentations during two lunch times per week for a month instead of over consecutive days, brief twitter-talks, or e-posters with recorded voice-over and Slack channels for continuous-running discussion.  Clearly, online conferences are less fun than the in-person kind. There is no travel to a new and interesting place, no intense immersive experience of thinking, eating, breathing science with smart people you only get to see rarely, fewer opportunities to link up with old friends or make new ones.  Some online conferences do try to fill this gap creatively: with quiz night style games in breakout rooms, or discussion sessions animated by established researchers. It’s something, but not the same…

When I attended my first conference as a graduate student, I dutifully attended all presentations and took copious notes on each one.  I was surprised and confused to see senior researchers, people whose science I really admired, skipping presentations and sitting around and talking instead (often with coffee or beer in hand). Someone then told me that although it might It look idle,  what they are really doing is hashing out ideas, challenging hypotheses, drafting grant proposals, designing experiments, and building the future of the field.  This is hard to do online.

Several scientific societies to which I belong have sent me surveys asking if I would attend in person or online conferences in 2021. I always answered yes to online, no to in-person.  I’m now registered for the Symposium on Insect-Plant Interactions: the presentations begin at 5 AM in my time zone (it’s run by Europeans).  When I feel like grumbling, I try to remind myself that this is less disruptive to my life than actually travelling to Europe.  I only have to shift my schedule by about 2 hr rather than 6. Also, I’ve paid for registration for 3 trainees as well as myself, and it has cost me less than a single in-person attendance with travel and accommodation.

So what about this 2022 conference in San Diego?  I’m trying to work myself up to saying that I’d be honored to present, but that I won’t travel, and hope that they include a remote option.

My main motivation is to slow down my contribution to climate disruption and (hopefully) communicate the point that we should consider this on-going emergency in decisions we take. But it must also be said that remote conferences are more inclusive, of researchers with minimal or inexistent travel budgets, researchers in the Global South, researchers with young children, researchers with disabilities, job-searching early-career researchers  with no employer to pay their expenses, researchers who cannot get the needed travel visas, researchers in ‘remote’ places, etc…

Many of us have transitioned to remote teaching and found out that it can be done well. Many students don’t like it, but have adapted and are flourishing.  Surely we can also be creative enough to design remote conferences that are dynamic, engaging and provide space for meaningful exchanges.  Surely we can be as flexible as we are requiring our students to be and learn to navigate these new spaces to the maximum of their potential.

© Emma Despland  August 11 2021

Steve adds: Emma’s thoughts about remote conferences mirror my own. On the one hand, I was once sceptical of remote teaching, but have learned that it’s a highly effective approach, better in some ways than the traditional classroom experience. On the other hand, I roll my eyes every time someone opines (usually on Twitter) that it’s silly to fly across the Atlantic to give a 12-minute talk. I mean, sure, that would be silly; but if that’s what you think going to a conference is about, you have a lot to learn about going to conferences! I’m not sure we can replace the in-person conference; but I’d sure like to find a way to attend fewer, or attend with less carbon impact. Come on future, get here sooner!

Image: Air Canada Airbus A319-100 taking off from Toronto; © BriYYZ via, CC BY-SA 2.0

*^North America doesn’t have good surface transport.  In Europe, there would be a fast, efficient, comfortable train. In South America, there would be a fast, efficient, comfortable bus.  For example to get from Quito to Guayaquil (424 km, a 6 hr drive due to the mountains in between), you can spend 12 US$ on an ordinary bus that doesn’t guarantee the time it will take or a 30 US$ on a luxury bus that will get you there in 6 hr. I have taken the luxury bus; it had business-class type seats (like on an airplane!), air-conditioning, wifi, toilets and an employee who serves water and takes care of passengers.  It also arrived on time.

7 thoughts on “Remote conferences and flying less

  1. Pavel Dodonov

    *Finally* someone speaking of how bus transportation in South America is good compared to other places! Well, I haven’t travelled by bus in Canada, and the train I took (Winnipeg to Churchill, a nice two-day ride) was pretty comfortable, but the buses in Brazil at least are quite comfortable. I took the bus São Paulo (SP) – Ilhéus (BA) several times – 26 hours or more – and thought it went pretty well.

    But returning to the post’s subject… I think that reducing carbon emissions and so on is important, I totally agree, and flying less is important, I totally agree, but I should this mean to stop going to conferences altogether? Virtual meetings do not permit to have the interaction that is possible face to face, to have discussions while drawing on a piece of paper (no, jamboard is nowhere nearly the same); and for early carreer researchers and students, it will be a memorable experience to meet in person someone they admire (I mean, once Mike Begon was at a conference at my university, when I was a grad student, and I sometimes drove him from the university to the hotel – how cool is that!), much more than to hear them talk online.

    And there are other ways of reducing the ecological impacts of conferences, although to a smaller degree. For example, I once went to a national conference on conservation biology in a small town (Barbacena) which was a couple of hours by bus from the state capital (Belo Horizonte, MG) where the airport was. It was a nice and comfortable bus ride. Then, on the last day, when discussing where the next conference would be and so on, the organizers said that they spent a lot of money with the transport of speakers from the airport to the conference, as they sent a car for each speaker. I still can’t understand why couldn’t the speakers have come by bus from the airport, it would not have been hard. But I think that people often think that bus is a lower quality transport that for some reason should not even be thought about?…

    And once I was going part of the examination board of grad projects at the university in Ilhéus, which is one hour by plane and some 10-12 hours by bus from Salvador, where I live; so I took the bus, and the program’s secretary had much more difficulties getting me the bus ticket than she had getting plain tickes for the other members.

    So I guess that my opionion is: fly less, yes; and use less impacting transportation methods when possible (although while buses emit less carbon, they can cause more roadkill, and I’m not sure how to equate this); and also use other ways of reducing the ecological impacts of conferences – for example, what’s the need of having disposable plastic cups for drinking if people can just as easily take their own mugs with them, as I and many people I know have been doing for the last 16 years or more? But I think that switching everything to remote would probably do more harm than good.

    So I think that mostly I agree with the post, but maybe I disagree with some aspects, and I’m not sure which ones :-).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Emma Dspland

      Hi Pavel,

      I’m glad you agree about South American buses; I was surprised at how comfortable and efficient the service is. We North Americans often look to Europe as having better public transport, and while this is true, I think we need to look South too…

      Back to the main point. I love attending in person conferences and no, I don’t think we should stop altogether. But, I’m realizing the remote model has advantages too.

      I’ve now attended the plant-insect symposium (SIP, 150 people, Netherlands) and the Ecological Society of America (ESA, >3000 people, California) back-to-back. I wouldn’t have done that much traveling for in-person attendance (I would probably have gone to SIP but not ESA). Also, I registered 3 students at SIP: not only would it have been expensive to bring them all to the Netherlands, it would have been impossible – one is in Pakistan working on paperwork to come to Canada in September (even without a pandemic she probably wouldn’t have been able to apply for a European visa at the same time as a Canadian one), another has a young child and the third is running seasonally sensitive lab experiments.

      I really missed the in-person interactions at SIP (a small meeting of people who mostly already know each other) but enjoyed being a part-time participant at online ESA: it’s easier to find what I’m really interested in and to sample the eclectic stuff to broaden my horizons, while fitting this around the rest of my schedule.

      So maybe some mixed model, with smaller in-person meetings and large remote ones? Or large societies like ESA could hold small themed in-person symposiums as well as remote talks, such that each person only attends in-person every few years?

      I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think the pandemic has given us the impetus to try the remote models and to think creatively about where to go from here, given the on-going climate emergency.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. sleather2012

    I’m now 18 years non-flying but as I live in the UK and travel across the channel and within the mainland is a joy by train (once you get out of then UK which has horrendously expensive and uncomfortable trains) I still get to a lot of conferences. I am speaking at the Ent Soc America this year remotely. I once attended a conservation biology conference in Prague. Before I started my talk I asked how many of the audience form outside the Czech Republic had NOT flown. It was me (by train) and a Bulgarian who had come by bus!


    1. Emma Despland

      Thanks Simon, you’re an inspiration!

      I took a train from the UK to the Czech Republic for a conference as a graduate student, and stopped off overnight with a friend in Jena. It was a great trip and I still have fond memories. Somewhat, I don’t seem to find the time for that sort of travel anymore…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Emma Despland (@EmmaDespland)

      To be honest, I’m not really sure. It seems like a good thing to do if you’ve decided to travel. But many of those offsets are currently on fire and have therefore become carbon sources. I don’t think I have any really illuminating insights on this one.



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