While the global shift towards virtual events has clearly reduced the carbon footprint, it also raises questions regarding accessibility. Specifically, can virtual events overcome barriers of diversity and inclusion in STEM conferences, particularly among early career researchers?
A new study in Nature Sustainability from a team of researchers led by scholars at the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin, and Arizona State University aims to answer this question.
The researchers compared in-person with virtual attendance at the North American Membrane Society (NAMS) annual conference , the International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR) annual conference, American Astronomical Society (AAS) conferences, as well as the online Photonics Online Meet-ups in 2020 and 2021, and the International Water Association Biofilms online conference in 2020. In addition to analyzing carbon footprint and geographic, career-stage, and gender diversity, they also quantified the cost differences, which could influence a decision to attend. Here are some select conclusions:
- The climate impact of virtual conferences was significant. The researchers estimate that the carbon footprint of 7000 virtual attendees was equal to one in-person attendee in 2019.
- Conferences broadened reach, participation, and engagement. Attendance by students at all levels of academia, as well as post-doctoral scholars, increased by as much as 344%.
- Women’s participation in virtual conferences increased as much as 253% compared to previous, in-person conferences.
- Cost burdens of in-person attendance for scientists from different regions on the world were disproportionate. For example, the cost of in-person attendance for scientists from Africa to recent ICLR, AAS and NAMS conferences was on average between 80% and 250% of their country’s annual per person gross domestic product (GDP), compared to ~3%of per capita GDP for US participants.
“While many of my colleagues are resistant to hybrid or online events, these findings support the ability of a virtual conference to reach into the scientific community. If we truly want to improve inclusion and diversity in science and engineering, we need to learn from the past year and continue to develop alternative virtual networking methods,” said co-senior author Andrea Armani, Irani Chair of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at USC.
In addition to the research teams at the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin, and Arizona State University, scholars from Cornell University, University of Notre Dame, and University of Ottawa contributed to this collaborative effort.
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Beyond the carbon footprint: Virtual conferences increase diversity, equity, and inclusion
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