Smaller, greener, better

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Science  21 Feb 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6480, pp. 831
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb2790

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During my 15 years riding on the administrative Tilt-a-Whirl, I was a no-show at scientific conferences. Prior to that, during my faculty years, my go-to conferences were the national American Chemical Society meetings and Gordon Research Conferences—especially Metals in Biology, which is in January in Ventura, California. This past January, I went back to Ventura after a 15-year hiatus. A lot of things struck me about how things have changed—mostly for the better—and how some things have stayed the same. One thing that is increasingly on peoples' minds is the future of scientific meetings.

What has stayed the same is that a conference of that style, with 200 scientists from around the world, is a vital format for scientific exchange. The participants ranged from graduate students and postdocs to folks who created the field of bioinorganic chemistry 40 years ago. It was interesting to see how far a lot of the science has come, especially our understanding of how proteins control the second coordination sphere of metal sites to drive their reactivity. Some fields still have great mysteries: Even though we know a great deal more about the structures, we still don't know precisely how the N–N bond breaks during catalysis by nitrogenase or how the O–O bond forms in photosystem II.

One thing that has started to change for the better is the increasing number of women and people of color among conference speakers and participants. We are nowhere close to solving the equity problems in science or science meetings, but the change in the composition and atmosphere of meetings overall after 15 years is encouraging. This trend should continue, and more members of this diverse, emerging cohort should have prominent speaking roles to showcase their science. Such opportunities can help launch the careers of young scientists, and maybe small meetings could also require that a certain percentage of talks be given by postdocs and early career faculty.

When it comes to big meetings, the interchange among scientists in person is still indispensable. But it's time for the scientific community to engage in frank talk about the impact of meetings on the climate. Some conferences have been supporting digital poster sessions to cut down on waste, but thousands of folks flying to these meetings is the real problem to focus on. It's time to think creatively about how to reduce the carbon footprint of meetings while preserving—even improving—their value.

What if we broke the large meetings into smaller, concurrent ones at regional sites where people could gather, sharing the drive or taking the train? Perhaps there could be a registration surcharge that is refunded if the participant doesn't fly. One thing that hasn't changed are the big sessions at national meetings; these are the big draw for most attendees. Unless you're in the front rows of the big ballrooms where these are held, you're watching the speaker on a screen from the back or even in an overflow room. Sitting with thousands of people in San Francisco watching a live talk on a jumbotron is no different from watching a streamed talk with thousands of people in New York—and vice versa. In a concurrent sites model, there would still be large enough audiences to make interchange with the speakers worthwhile. Major plenaries could be spread across different sites so that wherever one does take place, everyone at that particular location is in the room. This approach would push conferences to enhance technological capabilities. It also could lower the cost of attending conferences and thereby potentially increase the number and diversity of attendees. A group of graduate students piling into a van is much more democratic than having to decide who gets to fly.

Scientific conferences are vital to the collaboration that scientists rely on. Continuing to improve them in terms of equity for both the participants and the climate is something we can't stop striving to do.

I volunteer to drive the first van.

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