Scientific meetings damage the environment, and we should drastically curtail them

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  • leslie hardy says:

    Excellent opinion piece. Please send it to every University President; University Vice President, Academic and Research; Dean and Director of professional schools and faculties in Canada. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for Canada to set an example for the rest of the world! Thank you.

  • MEDHAVI says:

    A thought provoking article. In addition to the high carbon footprint associated with travelling what baffles me is the indiscriminate use of plastic bottles (even at the so called ‘sustainability forums’). Need to take small steps towards changing this model of engagement for the scientific world.

  • Jack Russell says:

    I have read this very same idea at least three times in the past month. It was also a deciding factor in the mother of Greta Thurnburg’s decision to retire from her prestigious concert tour schedule. I could not agree more….. it is time to quit talking about it, and start acting DIFFERENTLY!

  • Lauren Lapointe-Shaw says:

    A refreshing perspective Andreas. You have called out the elephant in the room. Yet, conferences are the main way that academicians demonstrate national/international impact. Our models need to change. Thanks!

  • Bruce Gingles says:

    Perhaps a clever scientist could invent a catalytic converter for the jet engine, thereby mitigating a portion of rapid travel’s harmful effect. Empirically, “clinical scientists” who choose to stay home rather than attend meetings tend to be laggards at adopting newer procedures and technologies. Evidence is a poor incentive for adoption. Herd behavior is powerful and nothing resembles a herd so much as a scientific convention. In the applied world (often deemed inferior to the theoretical), citation is a noun, not a verb.

  • Tom Appleton says:

    I always experience at least one moment of guilt when flying hither and yon, for the reasons Andreas cited. Not exclusive to scientific meetings but, that is the bulk of my travel.

    I equally feel the positive impact of F2F interactions for both organized meetings and serendipitous exchanges (e.g. in a conference environment where presentations stimulate collateral group-thinking).

    There is currently no universally-easy alternative to flights for F2F meetings requiring travel, especially for globally-distributed research fields. But many meetings need not be F2F. Forward looking, electric high speed train travel within a continent would reduce the ridiculously heinous GHG emissions from the insanity of short-haul flights, which have become so affordable on most continents.

    Overall: Unlikely that an absolute ban on scientific meetings would achieve all goals. Yet, highly likely that focusing exclusively on a few high-yield meetings, while expunging the unnecessary and sometimes predatory “scientific” meetings, would be a positive step. I doubt that issuing GHG-permits for scientific meetings would ever be tenable but I agree there are far too many meetings with unclear deliverables.

  • Rosmin Esmail says:

    Great article. What advice would you give to doctoral students who are trying to gain credibility within their research field? How can we be visible and how can our research be known if we are not physically present? I agree citations of our work is a start. Perhaps the time for traveling and attending scientific meetings could be better spent writing and publishing.

  • David Walker says:

    I tend to agree. And I wonder how many research dollars are expended on associated travel and accommodation. I also wonder whether there are significant profit margins for the organizers of academic conferences, given registration fees and “exhibitors” contributions. Decades ago I organized an annual CME event at Whistler which was very enjoyable. Good company but I suspect what was learned (other than improved skiing) might have been acquired in other ways. One way or another these are taxpayers’ dollars.

  • Fiona A. Miller, Professor, Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation says:

    Kudos to Andreas for tackling this important issue. The hypocrisy is real. The solution is not easy but it is known and it is actionable.

  • Janice Coffey says:

    I agree with all of the points you have made, especially, of course related to the gender gap. As well as child care, travel to and attending meetings in exotic locations by oneself is hazardous in itself.
    But I am glad you didn’t think this while in London!!

  • Mireia says:

    I just want to thank the author for this article. I fully agree with it!

  • Frank Gavin says:

    I generally agree, but after I read this I reflected on my experience as a member of the Canadian Drug Expert Committee. We usually met once a month for a one-day meeting in Ottawa for which people flew in from all parts of the country. Occasionally we would meet via phone instead. What I think all would agree was that our discussions and deliberations–and probably our recommendations too–were much better when we met in person. And the more complex the case, the truer this was. (Also, on the phone the more assertive people tended to dominate more than they did in in-person meetings.) Adding a visual component to such call (e.g. using Zoom) helps some, but in my experience not all that much.

    Does the same argument Andreas makes about conferences apply equally to meetings–and all kinds of meetings?

    • Carter Thorne says:

      I have also been attending regional, national and international meetings >35yr. I soon learned that my learning style was not large lecture halls etc.
      However, much to the point of attendance include: 1. networking – planned and unplanned 2. meet the authour at the Abstracts, where more meaningful discussions my occur with individuals you might never consider engaging; ideas never considered; serendipitous ‘discoveries’ which would unlikely be evident from the abstract book 3. per F Gavin – ensuring that meetings of international ‘collaborators’ occurs during the meeting, where f2f encounters allow more open and fruitful ‘deep dives’ not possible during t/c
      Much appreciate this insight and discussion

  • John Van Aerde says:

    Agreed, conferences with mainly stand-in-front-of-the-room lectures now have less value than they used to have. Not so for other types of conferences with interactive workshops, simulation group learning, etc… which have retained their value so far and for which attendance in person is necessary. In a similar vein as your essay, August 16 was the busiest day at Pearson airport in Toronto, 170,000 travelers mainly just for holidays, going over the whole world, without serving a real purpose. How many of these flights were REALLY necessary? 170,000 in ONE DAY! In ONE Canadian airport! We are all guilty.


Andreas Laupacis

Editor-in-chief Emeritus

Andreas founded Healthy Debate in 2011. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ)

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