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A Scientific Look at the Future of Conferences

A new report from the American Institute of Physics asks how the digital experimentation and lessons from the past year can make conferences more valuable.

With the huge impact of Covid-19 on scientific conferences, from moving online to being canceled outright, The American Institute of Physics assembled a panel of experts from a variety of association meeting-planning functions to reimagine how meetings might change in the future for the better.

The result: a recently released report, "The Future of Association Convening: Envisioning for The Sciences (FACETS)," which offers numerous ideas on how scientific conferences—and the research that emerges from them—can become more effective.

FACETS follows a 2020 AIP report assessing the impact of the pandemic, Peril and Promise: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Physical Sciences, which concluded that the scientific community was negatively impacted by the inability to fully engage professionally, including participating in scientific conferences.

This second report looks ahead, considering how conferences could change over the next five years to take advantage of the lessons learned from a year of experimentation in virtual events. The authors praise the dynamics of the traditional in-person event format, where scientists can collaborate on ideas, meet with publishers or potential employers, see equipment demonstrations first-hand, and build relationships. But the question the authors ask is, “How can conferences be even more valuable?”

Among the strengths of this 53-page report are the questions it leaves unanswered. At the end of each section, a list of “Questions to Consider” spurs readers to think about their own conference design and changes that might be valuable. In addition, an appendix includes short reports on 13 innovative scientific and cultural meetings.

Some top takeaways from the FACETS report:

• Virtual technologies can turn traditional lecture formats on their head. Digital tools, including text, audio, and video chat, can be used to facilitate two-way communication between presenters and attendees, inviting a more active dialogue than is sometimes possible at in-person meetings.

• Virtual events, by their nature, extend to more diverse attendees, which can make a gathering more powerful for advancing scientific exchange. Online scientific meetings allow groups to be more inclusive and offer greater accessibility, particularly to global audiences and early-career scientists.

• Scientific and professional societies that collaborate more with other societies as well as industry, academia, sponsors, and exhibitors can create a more valuable conference for all involved

• Engaging exhibitors outside of the exhibit hall in networking events and in one-on-one meetings is critical

• Before, during, and after (or “BDA”) is a major theme. Facilitating discussions and creating revenue streams through asynchronous access to meeting information before the in-person event; during, through livestreaming (synchronous); and after, with on-demand content, leverages and extends the experience to new members or those who could not attend the physical meeting.

• “Online does not mean free, which has been difficult for leadership of some associations to grasp,” the authors state. Careful budgeting of online and hybrid meeting models is essential to a successful business model.

• The typical business model for scientific societies has been to collect revenue through attendee registration and exhibitor registration fees; speaker, abstract, and poster fees; and sponsorships. A new model that incorporates revenue from content, data, and new membership opportunities may need to be adopted.

• In recent years many societies have worked to enhance participation and audience reach, including engaging via social media, recording selected content, livestreaming, using interactive Q&A, enabling the sharing of supplemental content online, and other methods. Covid-19 has compelled societies to accelerate these trends.

The paper concludes with a challenge to readers: “The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the scientific community to break out of our molds and provided us opportunities in the virtual-conference arena to solve problems in fresh ways. But given the immediate need to go virtual with our conferences, there was little time to think creatively. Now that the scientific community has gained experience with new ways of convening, we can build on this great potential for our future, forging new ways to share science and build community in ways that are accessible, equitable, and grounded in excellence.”

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