By Geert Somsen
International conferences are under heavy scrutiny these days. Not only has the covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent move online of many meetings raised questions about the future of conferencing. Concerns about the enormous carbon footprint and climate effects of massive congresses are also spurring searches for alternatives. On top of that questions are raised about the unequal accessibility and uneven inclusivity of international conferences.
In order to contribute to these debates, the SciConf project members organized a Roundtable session at the joint annual meetings of the History of Science Society and the Society for the History of Technology, on November 20, 2021. Originally planned to be held in New Orleans, Louisiana, these meetings too had gone online. Hence the shape of our own Roundtable echoed its subject matter: gathering on a web-based platform, comprising speakers and attendants from various time zones, and set up by organizations which were themselves deliberating where their annual meetings are going.
We wanted to contribute to these debates, but indirectly. Rather than sharing our own opinions on what should be done, we wanted to offer input on the basis of the research we have been doing. All speakers have examined how conferences have developed, functioned, and been used as particular forms of sociability, as means of communication, and as manifestations of scientific internationalism. We want to know what conferences were, what scientists did at conferences, and what purposes they served, both for attendants and for organizers and funders. What is it that made face-to-face interaction different and perhaps crucial in international scientific life and its surroundings?
Still, our contributions did not extensively report on our research – that was for other venues. In the Roundtable, each speaker took their own research, and, on the basis of it, make a short statement pertaining to current conferencing issues. This way we hoped to feed into and enrich the debate about the nature and necessity of conferences – learning from the past to understand the present and help shape the future.
More contributions to the HSS roundtable will be published on this blog in the coming weeks.