Conference Participation -- The Considerate Way

in StemSociallast year

Over the past decade, my scientific career brought me to many beautiful places and cities. While working as a researcher you typically get to attend scientific conferences and workshops. The organising committees of these events make sure the participants list is nice and long by taking the most interesting cities and locations as an event location. It is also not uncommon that an extensive social activity agenda is put in to place. An agenda filled with activities and city tours to all the major highlights. One of the nice perks of research, one might say.

conferenceImage source

Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Poland, Canada, Norway. The list is long. This week I'm visiting Japan. Well... if it wasn't for the pandemic. This year the conference in Japan will be fully digital. All participants join via the usual tools like zoom and gather town.

zoom call
Image source

You might think this would come as a disappointment, but truth be told I'm really glad! With all the participants sitting at home (sometimes conferences have more than thousand participants) you can imagine the amount of carbon saved from flights not taken!

A roundtrip flight from the Netherlands (where I am located) to Japan has about the same carbon footprint as an average Jamaican citizen in a whole year! Yes, a three-day conference spending as much as a person would in a whole year. Moreover, for us to keep the Paris climate agreement, we have a per capita carbon budge of only half of what the flight costs!

Ok, I guess you got my excitement. Even with the unfortunate news that I am staying home this week. After all, Japan is a pretty cool place I believe!

Although it is the pandemic that got me writing this post, I actually discussed the ridiculousness of all this many times with my colleagues! Pre-pandemic, that is. With the modern-day ability to video call people on the other side of the globe from your mobile phone, one could ask if all the traveling is absolutely necessary. I'm not advocating to completely stop having in-person meetings. In fact, it is still very important for networking and collaboration. But some consideration would be a good thing.

This week, I realised this discussion is not just limited to the walls of our institute. In fact, some fellow researchers took the liberty to do some basic calculations. The full article on this can be found in the Lancet. Moreover, one of the authors of the article started a petition on the topic to push institutions to rethink their traveling budgets.

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On one conference trip I actually visited these stairs in Rome!

Although the pandemic is ongoing, there is a chance I might visit more conference in-person in the coming years. The modus operandi with conferences (at least for me) is to decide an abstract submission on the scientific relevance, the people you would like to meet, and yes, the host location. Although it was already somewhat of an argument, I will also very carefully consider wether my participation is really worth the annual carbon budge of an average Jamaican citizen.

I hope you do too!


I can almost recognise myself in this post :)

I used to travel a lot before the pandemic. Really a lot. I was spending easily 3-4 months abroad scattered over the whole year, and hence visiting Asia (Korea, Japan and China mostly), North America (US, Canada) and South Africa on a very regular basis. I must confess that I was thus an intense carbon burner (as I am based in Paris).

The pandemic and all the activities moving to Zoom made me thinking about this deeply. We also initiated those discussions at the level of the institute. Reducing the amount of trips is better for the planet that we will leave to our children, better for my health as well and for the quality of life. In addition, it is interesting to mention in passing that I now attend even more workshops and conferences than before. However, I attend them sometimes in a not-too-focused manner, as on zoom we get easily distracted...

I am quite happy with this, although I severely miss meeting colleagues from all over the world in person. The research probably suffered a bit from this, as many very interesting projects started around a coffee, a beer or a hike! In 2021, I had the chance to attend a one-week-long in-person conference in Slovenia, and a couple of short events in France. This compensated a bit for the social part.

For the upcoming years, my philosophy changed a lot compared with what it was in ancient times. I will probably organise a couple of trips in 2022 (if we can of course), but mostly in Europe. Meeting people is important, but we should keep it decent enough for the planet. And if it happens that a further trip is planned (sometimes those are needed), then I will try to stay abroad long enough to make it worthy.

Nicely spoken! Traveling over the world or not traveling at all aren't realistically sustainable options in todays worlds. Like with so many things one has to find a workable balance. It seems like you found the right way of doing it for yourself! I think extending stays is indeed a good alternative to the short trips.

I really appreciate your comment!

We’ve been having many Zooms. We’ve an office in London and Washington DC both empty again at the moment. I love your photo of the Spanish Steps in Rome. I shared a photo of these the other day, see my profile 😀

Hope the conference went well?

I haven't had a normal in-office day since early 2020 unfortunately. And although I kind of enjoyed the ease of working from home in the beginning, some "normal" days would be nice for a change :-)

I'm currently waiting for the conference to start. The opening session starts at 1:00 am my local time.

What kind of work do you do?

I love your photo of the Spanish Steps in Rome. I shared a photo of these the other day, see my profile 😀

Just checked them, you are really skilled with a camera! Also like the feather pictures btw.


I agree to be honest, there are days when I would welcome the company, the office banter and a change of scenery. However I do for the most part enjoy working from home. Especially (to answer your question) as a web developer, the peace and quiet is ideal to focus on coding.

Thanks for your comments on my Rome shots. I've worked professionally in photography before but coding makes better money! Well that may all change of course in the future, who knows.

The feather photos weren't mine, they're a reblog but great aren't they :-)

Ah I missed the fact that it was a reblog! Nevertheless nice indeed! Nature always has a way of doing things effectively. Which in this case is keeping the birds from getting soaking wet :-)

I miss going to conferences. I haven't even applied to any since the pandemic began. 😐

Me too! Since the beginning of the pandemic I also managed to not get involved with the online ones. However, with my new position I am participating digitally for the first time this week. Let's see how it goes :-)

I agree with you. I would have loved to visit different cities while participating in conferences and seminars. TBH, I was looking forward to visiting few destinations in the US as part of the key seminars on molecular biology. It is frustrating that you do not have that perks any more. More zoom calls for me I guess :).

Yep, it's sad indeed. But we don't have much choice really. I submitted an abstract to a conference in Oslo this summer. No official announcement regarding online/offline, but let's hope it will be a regular one in person!

Just out of curiosity, are you located in the US or just excited to visit the US as part of some job trip?

I am located in Toronto, Canada. There are few keystone conferences supposed to happen in the US that I was excited about. The rise of the new variant has stopped almost everything- one more time.

I completely agree with you. Furthermore, online conferences are more inclusive: every team member can participate, not only the lucky traveler, and for some low income countries, the reduced cost is very welcome (not considering the VISA constraints). And with the recording of the presentations and the asynchronous questions, one can participate to the discussion from all over the world. Overall I find online conferences a great improvement for science.

Yes I agree! Although I must say I see it as an addition to the existing approaches. The ideal case would be to find a way to organise an inclusive (as you mentioned) well thought of hybrid conference in which people can decide based on all the metrics wether they participate in person or digital.

This sounds ideal to me, but is not that easy to arrange. How would one organise something as simple as a conference dinner for example?

Although there are a lot of challenges with this, I think there has been a shift, at least in the minds of the people, towards opening up the idea of digital conferences. Or more generally, working more digital let's say.

Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts! I highly appreciate it :-)

Yay! 🤗
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