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Virtual conferences better for the environment, study finds

People working and keeping safe social distance. Picture: Supplied

People working and keeping safe social distance. Picture: Supplied

Published Dec 10, 2021


Virtual conferences which have skyrocketed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, are easier to access by a wider range of participants and lower the environmental footprint.

This is according to a study published in the 'Nature Sustainability Journal'.

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A research team led by engineers from The University of Texas in Austin analyzed several science conferences that first went virtual during the early months of the pandemic. The researchers examined the environmental, social and economic costs of virtual conferences compared with in-person events, and analyzed how the shift online altered participation by women, early-career researchers and scientists from underrepresented institutions and countries.

The study found that virtual events lowered costs and reduced time and travel commitments that had previously held some conferences back from attracting diverse groups of attendees. Also, the environmental costs of hundreds or thousands of people flying from around the world to attend a conference are eliminated.

"When we went virtual, it brought a lot more voices to the table that just weren't able to be there for in-person events because of cost, time and other reasons," said Kasey Faust, an assistant professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering's Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

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The cost of in-person attendance for scientists from Africa to several recent conferences was on average between 80 per cent and 250 per cent of their country's annual per-person gross domestic product, compared with approximately 3 per cent of per capita gross domestic product for the U.S. participants.

In-person events also required tremendous investment in time. These events required travel, often lasting multiple days, and took up a lot of the attendees' time while they were there.

"This can be a major challenge, particularly for women. For many younger workers, this period of life tended to fall around the time when many were having children. This made getting away to conferences challenging for women," said Faust, who also has two young children.

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Women's participation in virtual conferences increased as much as 253 per cent compared with previous, in-person conferences, according to the study. And when looking at academia, attendance by students and postdoctoral scholars increased as much as 344 per cent.

The scale of the climate impact of in-person events was also staggering. The researchers estimated that just a single attendee of an in-person conference in 2019, averaged over the conferences analyzed, had the same environmental footprint as 7,000 virtual conference attendees.

The researchers said that virtual events opened up opportunities for greater international participation, which is limited by cost and travel documentation. For instance, one woman in the study who was a mother of small children said that she did not need travel documents to travel outside her country, which had kept her away from attending conferences around the world.

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"She could network more than she has ever networked in the last year, and that never would have happened with an in-person conference," said Manish Kumar, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

The team included researchers from UT Austin, University of Ottawa, Arizona State University, Cornell University, University of Notre Dame and the University of Southern California. The study was initially launched to evaluate the unexpectedly successful North American Membrane Society (NAMS) annual meeting in May 2020, one of the first engineering conferences to go virtual. The authors expanded the study to compare in-person with virtual attendance at the NAMS meeting and several other engineering conferences.

The study found many benefits to virtual conferences, but challenges remained. Among them were a lack of engagement and missing out on in-person networking. Approximately 75 per cent of attendees at one scientific conference and 96 per cent at another said they preferred in-person networking, and that virtual sessions felt inauthentic and contrived.

In-person conferences are beginning to return, but the researchers expect many events to create hybrid offerings, potentially 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," Kumar added. (ANI)

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