By Vanessa Moss
Vanessa Moss is an astronomer based at CSIRO Space and Astronomy and chair of The Future of Meetings project. She attended our project conference at the Lorentz Center in October 2021. We invited her to reflect on the meeting and presentations on the history of conferences.
New year, old normal?
As we ring in a new year, it is undoubted that many in the academic community will be wishing for something other than the worst of 2021. “Perhaps,” they’ll muse, wistfully thinking of all the cancelled or postponed in-person conferences they could have been travelling to, “2022 is finally the year we can return to normal.”
While there is much that has been awful about the last two years in terms of the devastating impact of an ongoing global and deadly pandemic, there was also a lot that was not ideal about our old normal. It was so often inaccessible, exclusive and completely unsustainable, but it was easy not to notice if you were one of the privileged few. Personally, I am grateful that my eyes have been opened to the imperative to design and implement a new normal, changing the ways we communicate and collaborate in science, in academia and in society.
What I hadn’t realised is how much we have still to learn from carefully unpacking the past, and the role historical analysis may have to play in the ongoing conversation about the future of interaction.
Connecting the past to the future
In October 2021, I had the great fortune to attend a Lorentz Center workshop titled “The Past, Present and Future of the Scientific Conference” (https://www.lorentzcenter.nl/the-scientific-conference-past-present-and-future.html). As an astrophysicist, this gathering which focused on bringing together (primarily) historians to finalise outcomes from a collaborative research project into the history of the scientific conference was well outside my field, and yet the scientific conference is at the heart of how we collaborate as contemporary scientists. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years exploring “The Future of Meetings” (TFOM, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-021-01325-z), so being able to take part in discussions reflecting on how the conference has evolved to now was a fantastic experience, and remarkably illuminating when it comes to how we think about the future of conferences.
The organisers made a dedicated effort to include a cross-disciplinary perspective as part of this workshop. In addition to researchers on the project, they also sought to gain insights from event organisers, social scientists and (in my case!) astronomers. This felt like a great strength of the workshop, by allowing quite different perspectives and experiences to be shared and discussed, and I certainly learnt a lot from the diverse expertise of workshop participants. The workshop employed the use of a trialogue format for each session, which I found to be an effective way of prompting useful discussion around, in this case, paper drafts as pending output of the broader research project.
The actual topics of the papers were quite varied (see: https://sciconf.nu/research), ranging from the study of an individual conference and its impact (e.g. the World League for Sexual Reform conference of 1929), a series of conferences (e.g. Nobel Symposia, Gordon Conferences, Pugwash conferences) or a consideration of the modern history of scientific conferences in context (e.g. from the perspective of internationalism or the impact of the virtual conference). I found it curiously refreshing to read through these papers written in quite a different style to the normal astronomy paper, often with much more colourful language or interpretation than tends to feature in astronomy. Evidence is also treated differently in historical analysis, more as direct quotes and written records than data, tables or figures as we are fond of in science.
In this brief post I can certainly not do justice to the breadth and depth of the investigations presented as part of SciConf, but I’ll mention some highlights which specifically linked back to our work in TFOM and the challenges facing the future of meetings.
- Laura Foster pointed out that the most valuable parts of conferences are generally those which “subvert the intended order of events”, the loss of which I’ll note has been amplified sometimes excruciatingly by the formalised over-structuring of online meetings and lack of well-incorporated interaction opportunities.
- The role of informal social interaction and “play” as a critical part of historic conferences was explored in numerous papers. It seems this is the part most acutely lost in a virtual equivalent, and yet I’d say has been completely underrated (perhaps intentionally) as the reason anyone goes to conferences in the first place.
- Jessica Reinisch’s paper on the role of conferences as tools for internationalism explored the evolution of associated “rules” for designing and executing conferences, with an odd sense of familiarity apparent despite the decades that have passed. I found myself wondering why we rarely questioned the nature and format of the conference before COVID-19, and in what ways we will ultimately follow through (or not).
- In directly addressing the relationship between virtual and in-person conferences, Charlotte Bigg looks to balance the benefits and drawbacks of going online, ultimately concluding that the steps forward are to recognise and value the role of the “mundane, unofficial dimensions of conferencing as a practice” while navigating towards the future – a future I personally hope will focus on maximising accessibility, inclusivity and sustainability rather than perpetuating a historic culture of exclusion.
- Geert Somsen asks a very pertinent question in his work looking at chemistry conferences as enactors of internationalism: “what was it in the exchanges between scientists that required face to face interaction and bodily presence?” – a question perhaps even more difficult to answer in the age of incredible advances in technology like instantaneous video calls and immersive virtual reality, but one of utmost importance to explore in a considered and nuanced way.
As a contemporary astronomer, there was an eerie sensation of looking back on past scientists as test subjects to be studied and understood, and a degree to which conferences from the early 20th century seemed very similar to the formats we adopt now. Does that mean that our reasons for meeting are unchanged in their intrinsic universality, or is it perhaps a sign that it’s been too long since we revisited the formats of how we meet, interact and share ideas as scientists?
It was clear from my brief encounter with the diverse work produced as part of SciConf that there is much that modern scientists can (and should) learn from the experiences of scientists past. I am hopeful that our historian friends will help us to understand this complicated past, and translate the experiences of our scientific predecessors into lessons learned for the future of scientific collaboration.
Will hybrid really save us all?
Technically, this workshop took place in a hybrid format. In fact, the majority of workshop participants took part by travelling to the Lorentz Center in Leiden, even including some of my Day 1 online buddies. Being in Australia with closed borders and existing as a curious spectator at best, that wasn’t a possibility for me. Combined with the increasing awareness of the need for more sustainable academic practices (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-021-01486-x), even in the absence of restrictions I would unlikely have been able to travel exclusively for this workshop. So it was lucky that I was able to take part online, in the hybrid workshop.
Lucky, because it was only very close to the time of the workshop that online participation in the originally-planned in-person workshop was an option. Lucky, because a friend in Leiden who was invited to take part in-person couldn’t make it so I could take his spot. Lucky, because in the absence of COVID, none of this would have been remotely possible.
My technical experience of the workshop was mixed. As noted above, the content was excellent and I did learn much by taking part, and was connected with academics doing super interesting work in analysing the history of scientific conferences. Technically though, the workshop was designed primarily for the in-person crowd, and that did make it hard sometimes to participate as an online attendee. There were access and audio/visual issues, and it was sometimes easy to get left behind while engaging (hard to follow) conversation took place in-person. I didn’t really ever get to “meet” everyone attending properly because there was no scheduled social interaction that included the online attendees.
That said, I was very grateful to the efforts of both the Lorentz Center and the in-person workshop participants in adapting to improve the hybrid experience over the few days of the workshop. The AV situation was improved, and session chairs made efforts to include or ask the online attendees specifically for questions or feedback. Some in-person attendees took out their personal devices and signed into Teams, chatting with the online attendees and turning on their cameras so we could see them better. At one stage there were three different laptops all turned to face the room to give us a better view of everyone speaking, and that was both entertaining and actually quite effective.
Curiously, we have found in TFOM that when you ask people what they think the future of meetings and conferences will be, many say “hybrid”. It’s a buzzword tossed around commonly, even by event management who should know better by now that hybrid is more than twice the work of in-person or online individually (e.g. https://aas.org/posts/news/2020/12/if-its-virtual-why-does-it-cost-anything-all). In TFOM, we concluded digital-first (e.g. making use of technology and event design to minimise the gap in audience experience, regardless of format) was the best way forward, but online-only is by far the most sustainably viable option for the future (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-27251-2). Based on recent experiences of hybrid, including this workshop, I’d argue we still have much work ahead of us to figure out what truly effective hybrid looks like. While there is certainly an important role for in-person interaction as part of the future of meetings, I remain optimistic that perhaps we might learn from the last two years about how to move forward in a more inclusive and sustainable way.
Learning from the past
At the end of it, attending the workshop was a great and useful experience, and I was glad to be able to take part. Now, only a couple of months later, my memory of key details has grown somewhat foggy and I find myself wishing there had been more active archiving of some of the illuminating discussions which took place (an advantage of embracing technology that is still yet to be fully realised in academic conferencing).
But I do remember this much: in all our work for TFOM, we looked much at the present and future of meetings. We have only infrequently looked to the past (https://thefutureofmeetings.wordpress.com/keynotes/#keynote2), and that was an oversight. In reading through the papers presented at the workshop, and in listening and weighing in on the discussions, I found so many oddly fascinating parallels between the past and the present: ways in which the past has determined our present, for better or worse, and lessons we can learn from the past as we now stand at the brink of a future shaped by chaos and disruption. Above all, it has reminded us of the importance, especially now, of breaking down the barriers between our academic disciplines and benefitting from our more globally-connected world to truly learn from each other. We also should reflect on the critical role that our leading organisations and institutions must play in enabling us to adapt for the future – rather than by default seeking to preserve century-old traditions that may no longer be relevant.
A key takeaway for me from the various works presented and discussed in SciConf was this: post-WWI, the nature of the scientific conference changed, driven partly by diplomacy and partly by the disruption of the times. It became less elitist, more transparent, more about structured discussion and debate. It had a long way to go to be truly inclusive (I don’t think it’s there even now), but it was a marked shift from the scientific discourse of the 19th century.
And if the way we meet could change so dramatically once before, it can do so again.