Scientific meetings damage the environment, and we should drastically curtail them
I am a researcher and I stopped regularly going to scientific meetings over two decades ago.
They were expensive, time consuming, and I rarely learned anything substantial. Often the three or four presentations I really wanted to see were booked at the same time, most of the material presented was uninspiring science, and the same themes were discussed year after year. The best part was renewing friendships with people from around the world over a nice meal, often in an exotic locale (for a guy from Ontario).
My attitude to meetings clearly made me an outlier among my researcher colleagues, and I struggled with what to advise the students and young faculty I mentored—“don’t go” because you will be largely wasting your time and money, or “go” because everyone else does, you may learn how to get more out of meetings than I have, you can turn them into an inexpensive holiday, and part of how your peers will evaluate you is whether you have presented at national and international meetings.
Climate change and its impact on the environment and the health of people across the world (especially the poor) now provide a compelling new reason to abandon the prominent place of scientific meetings in the global research enterprise. Air travel creates an enormous amount of greenhouse gas. A typical flight from Toronto to London, England and back creates two tons of greenhouse gases per passenger (about the same as the average person driving a car for a year). Large meetings such as those of the American Society of Hematology and the American Heart Association attract 20,000 or more attendees. That’s a lot of melted Arctic sea ice.
I feel that the role of scientific meetings in the exchange of scientific and clinical information is exaggerated. Much is made of the “late breaking” sessions of the American Heart Association, where the results of the most important clinical trials are presented to a crowd of thousands—surely we can all read the paper in the New England Journal of Medicine or the Lancet instead. When attending meetings, I have always felt sorry for the many presenters standing in front of posters describing their work, which almost nobody is looking at. I don’t know what proportion of work presented in oral or poster sessions is eventually published and cited more than 25 times—I suspect a small minority. My point is that the amount of paradigm- or practice-changing science presented at these meetings is small, and abandoning the meetings won’t be a big blow to scientific advancement.
At their best, international scientific meetings allow the dynamic exchange of ideas, the planning of complex studies and the development of the trusting personal relationships that are needed for some scientific studies. This does require face-to-face interaction, and because of this it is unlikely that we will be able to get rid of international air travel for science entirely. However, what often passes for “networking” at scientific meetings is the exchange of information that could easily occur via phone, email, reading of publications or a carefully planned video conference.
Among many academics, being a frequent attender of meetings around the world is a kind of stamp of approval. I went through a phase where I actually cared how many frequent flyer points I got! I would look at other researchers to see if the tag on their bag indicated they had Elite or Super Elite status, and felt smugly superior during the two or three years I achieved Super Elite status. Super-childish, but the fact that I was important enough to be flying around the world to meetings, some of which I literally attended for a few hours, was an academic status symbol.
We need to change our scientific culture so that flying across the ocean to attend a one-day meeting or for one scientific presentation is an embarrassment, not a status symbol.
Currently, presenting at international meetings is an important part of how researchers are evaluated by universities and research institutes. I have never understood that. To me, it is a low bar. What really matters are publications that are cited by others (the number of citations varying greatly by scientific discipline). I think it would be very easy for universities and research institutes to change their criteria for judging scientific excellence if annual international scientific meetings were to vanish.
It is harder for young women scientists to attend international meetings than their male counterparts because of the way child care is shared in most societies. The demise of scientific meetings might help, in a small way, to address the gender gap among researchers.
Climate change is the most important issue of our time, and has huge implications for health. Those of us who work in the health industry can’t ignore the carbon footprint we generate—to do so is exceptionally selfish. It is hypocritical to devote time on medical school curricula to the health effects of climate change and ignore the greenhouse gases health researchers needlessly generate. It is time for medical schools and other organizations involved in health research to make reducing our carbon footprint one of the top priorities in our strategic plans. What I am suggesting has been suggested by many others. We need to stop talking and start doing.