Agathe here – The European Geoscience Union, EGU, a leading learned society in the fields of Earth, Planetary and space sciences, organize each year the largest European conference in geosciences. Due to COVID-19, this year’s conference was entirely virtual. Naturally, attending an online conference is very different from going to one in person: meeting people is less easy and you don’t feel the excitement of being surrounded by your colleagues and friends, not to mention that it is difficult when you are in front of your computer to put your work in progress aside and devote yourself to the conference. I attended the EGU meeting to present results of my PhD work in paleoclimatology, on the evolution of continental climate from the mid-Eocene to the early Oligocene. As it was my first big 100% virtual conference, I would like to give my impressions on the format, a little bit particular, but which will certainly become more and more common in the future.
Part I – Joining a fully virtual conference, what does it look like?
The number of participants at EGU General Assemblies increases from year to year, and this conference format will not have limited participation with 18,155 scientists from 136 countries this year against 16,273 participants from 113 countries in the last edition, in 2019 . In recent years, various movements have developed that promote a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions associated with research activities: first aware of climate change, researchers must adapt their practices to be consistent and follow an energy-saving approach . One of the positive points of this year’s meeting is that without all the flights to Vienna, its carbon imprint was much lower. Last April, the EGU estimated that by organizing a fully virtual conference with 18,000 participants, greenhouse gas emissions of the assembly would be equivalent to less than 0.1% of the same conference in person (despite the video stream) !
Normally, the conference hosts a large number of presentations including posters, 10-minute talks, and “PICOs” (Presenting Interactive COntent®), a format for short digital presentations, specific to the EGU. To give an idea, in 2019, the assembly counted 5531 orals, 9432 posters and 1287 PICOs . In order to give everyone the opportunity to present results to a broad audience, the majority of this year’s presentations were in the form of PICOs, i.e. small 2-min-talks with a single slide! This was the case for my presentation. Fortunately, the EGU website also allowed presenters to add more content, so I also made a 20-minute video to present my work to the most interested speakers. What an exercise! Let’s face it, even if we like challenges, summarizing several months of work in 120 seconds is still a bit frustrating. But with hindsight, I think it was very interesting, reminding me of the 3 minutes thesis competitions, 3MT (these are really nice to see, if you never tried check here ).
First of all, presenting your work in 2 minutes requires a lot of work to be done beforehand. How can I share the problematic and the interest of my work with my audience without presenting the different notions in detail? What are my main results? What is the take-home message? I think being used to talking about your research with your non-academic friends and family may really help. The conference offered the possibility to make this presentation live or to pre-record it. I choose the second option to make mine more accessible, by adding subtitles and to be able to archive it online after the conference. As a non-native speaker, I know that it can sometimes be difficult to follow a whole session of presentations, especially if they are not totally in our research topic, and depending on speakers’ accent. So, it was also an opportunity to make sure that this 2-minute message would get through to as many people as possible who came to listen. Finally, this format was also very interesting for the diffusion of the work. I now have a fairly simple 2-minute video associated with my in-progress publication. It’s still additional work to do, but I think I’ll practice this exercise again next time before I start writing an article, and then why not for its dissemination afterward! In spite of this particular format, moments of exchange were allowed in each session, through dedicated video conference rooms for each presenter. I had the pleasure to meet new researchers, saw friends and colleagues. Like in big music festivals, many sessions are held in parallel at EGU General Assemblies. With shorter, though dense, sessions, I think I was able to see more and a greater diversity of studies.
Part II – Thinking more
In parallel to sessions on my research theme (paleoclimates), which always teach a lot, the EGU offers the possibility to attend special (and longer), oral presentation, the Medal lectures, which allowed me to attend presentations by the eminent (paleo)climatologists Valérie Masson-Delmotte and Kim Cobb, and small courses (useful to nice to refresh one’s geology basics for example). What I really like about the EGU is that the conference also has great sessions (presentations, lectures or debates) about research in general and how to do it, for example: about the role of geosciences in the evolution of the world / about education and communication of science / or about diversity, equity and inclusion in science. This year, I was particularly impressed by two of them:
First, “A Climate and Ecological Emergency: Can a pandemic help save us…?”, with the passionating and super-positive intervention of the climatologist Katharine Hayhoe (see her website which gives a lot of tools to understand and raise awareness about climate change [5,6]), who compared the rapidity of action on a global scale in response to COVID to the persistent lack of action of governments in the face of the ongoing climate crisis, trying to understand the origin of this crisis (ex. The phenomena of psychological distancing: COVID showed us that we could react quickly and limit our emissions, how can we do the same in the face of climate change? I was also particularly interested in the session, “Promoting diversity in geosciences“, which took stock of the lack of diversity and neo-colonial practices within geosciences, and exposed concrete means to set up an anti-racism laboratory [7,8]. Budiman Minasny’s presentation introduced me to the concept of parachute science (aka helicopter research) which is “when researchers from wealthier countries go to a developing country, collect information, travel back to their country, analyze the data and samples, and publish the results with no or little involvement of local researchers“. One can imagine that perhaps some unscrupulous researchers take advantage of local researchers to do unrecognized research assistance work in the field, somewhere far away… There are people with a poor morality in all fields. However, I had never realized (in fact I had never asked myself), that there was a whole grey area with indirect and less obvious ways of misconducting. A striking example was for instance that by working on research questions centered on other countries, without involving local universities, we may grab potential research to local research communities… In my future research, I would like to address questions of macro-evolution on a global scale, although brief, this presentation would clearly have helped me thinking about my future collaborations. As a non-minoritized (although) woman, I am not the best person to talk about this topic, and I certainly still have tons of things to learn to be up to speed, but it is thanks to conferences like these that one learns little by little how to conduct fair science at the scale of one’s lab and internationally, so these should be promoted.
Short conclusion –
As already explained on this blog , attending conferences is very important, especially for young researchers. Thanks to this meeting, I was able to see many presentations, meet researchers in my field, but also question the way I present my work and create materials to share it with more people. The development of this digital format also makes it possible to hold more conferences, especially since some of the smaller ones can be free. Yet, like most researchers, I think, I am looking forward to the experience of real conferences. This experience calls for questioning our practices: since we can do 100% virtual and low carbon conference, how far do we find it acceptable to travel to a conference?
To go further – small list of references
- EGU General Assembly 2019 – Country statistics. (2019). European Geosciences Union. https://www.egu2019.eu/#CountryStatistics
- Langin, K. (2019). Why some climate scientists are saying no to flying. Science Careers. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.aay0230
As an example, and for more information on why we should fly less, see the website of No Fly Climate Sci and their “Resources” section. https://noflyclimatesci.org/.
- vEGU21 Carbon tracker (2021). European Geosciences Union. https://egu21.eu/about/green_egu.html
- Three-minute Thesis website: https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/
- Katharine Hayhoe website FAQ (a mine of gold to better understand and talk about climate change): http://www.katharinehayhoe.com/wp2016/faqs/
See also her youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/kathhayhoe/playlists
- Hayhoe, K. (2018). The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: Talk about it. TEDWomen 2018 conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/katharine_hayhoe_the_most_important_thing_you_can_do_to_fight_climate_change_talk_about_it
- Chaudhary, V. B., & Berhe, A. A. (2020). Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab. PLOS Computational Biology, 16(10), e1008210. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008210
See the also the associated press article of the Chicago tribune (2020): https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-life-how-to-build-an-anti-racist-stem-lab-tt-1022-20201023-wxv35r73mnhstb6ed7hw72iqp4-story.html
- Neo-colonial science. (2021). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-colonial_science
- Impact of Attending Conferences. (2020). Time Scavengers. https://timescavengers.blog/tilly-edinger-travel-grant/impact-of-attending-conferences/