Reimagining Scientific Conferences for a Post-Pandemic Future

As the COVID-19 virus spread, the consequences impacted how people gathered with one another in 2020. For scientific organizations that normally host annual meetings where researchers come together for information, professional development and camaraderie, that meant initially canceling meetings and then launching virtual platforms for convening members, all at short notice.

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) assembled a panel made up of experts in various parts of association conference planning to reimagine the meetings of the future to be more impactful for and valuable to society stakeholders. The report, “The Future of Association Convening: Envisioning for the Sciences (FACETS),” offers ideas and suggestions on how scientific conferences can integrate valuable lessons learned from retooling in-person meetings to virtual formats over the past year, while also meeting the changing demands of research communities and the conduct of science.

“Last year, the AIP released a report assessing the impact of the pandemic on the physical sciences. That report, ‘Peril and Promise: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Physical Sciences,’ concluded the whole scientific community was being impacted negatively by the inability to fully engage professionally, including attending scientific meetings and conferences,” says Michael Moloney, AIP’s CEO

“But the report also noted virtual conferences can provide opportunities to reach nontraditional populations, which could be a long-term boon to increasing the diversity of physical sciences talent. We wanted to explore the potential of the new and emerging platforms for society convening in a deeper dive and convened the FACETS panel.”

The report looks at conferences and conference planning from design to execution, and gives practical insight for navigating innovation, while keeping an eye on business requirements and the needs of the scientific society.

“The FACETS report was put together to recognize the opportunity to really rethink the future of scientific conferences in the next three to five years,” says Christine McEntee, chair of the panel and principal at CWMcEntee LLC. “We wanted to give a range of ideas that different science societies, even membership societies outside of science, could consider pursuing to increase the value of their conferences to their communities and to participants all around the world.”

Fundamental Elements of Scientific Conferences

As many conferences went virtual in 2020, some organizers started leveraging technology that allowed more two-way communication between presenter and attendee during sessions and talks, with some success. Future tactics for the exchange of scientific discoveries and advancements include moving from the traditional lecture format to a more active discourse and dialog among presenters and participants.

The design of future meetings will incorporate improvements for personal and emotional safety, diversity of attendees, environment impacts, and responsiveness to unpredictable fluctuations in the world.

Structures and Forms of Convening

The pandemic created a host of challenges for holding scientific meetings, but it expanded opportunities for evolving and improving the structure of future gatherings. Virtual and hybrid conferences will require adjustments to the way participants engage and connect with each other, the workflow and budget of the event, and the way science is shared in the scientific community.

This may seem overwhelming, but keeping the focus on the organization’s objectives for its convening activities will help meeting organizers choose what to prioritize as they looks to retool conferences.

The Future of Science Exchange

Many conference and meeting attendees use scientific gatherings to share information with colleagues, discover breakthroughs in their field and foster discussion with peers. The shift to virtual offered a glimpse in how those exchanges and presentations could continue in the future, with an emphasis on making the information more broadly available to all participants.

The report suggests how meeting organizers could explore alternative ways of presenting conference information and increasing audience engagement. Conferences have the potential to use multiple pathways for their information, offering maximum on-demand flexibility for users to consume content and to engage with peers.

Accessibility and Audience Reach

With the opportunity to make fundamental changes to scientific conferences, the report suggests planners examine how they could use this shift to be more inclusive of potential participants and of previously untapped partners in conference organizing. Diverse backgrounds for everyone involved in the conference experience can make the gathering more powerful for advancing science exchange and more meaningful for all those involved.

“It’s great to have this report that emphasizes the things that I also saw within my own society, things that we need to be thinking about,” says Lily Wang, panel member and associate dean for faculty and inclusion for the College of Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Who is not here at this table? Who is not being included when we talk about meeting organizing? How can we get them there? How can we make our meetings more inclusive and more impactful, and with greater accessibility?”

Conference Partnerships

Engaging sponsors, exhibitors, industry, academia and other societies as partners, not just participants, opens collaboration beyond financial considerations and creates opportunities for success for all. While expanding the chances for information sharing, developing partnerships can create cooperation in addressing possible problems, expand existing outreach beyond traditional members and potentially assist in lowering financial risks from changing meeting environments.

“We often look at our meetings as a turf, but that is in the past. Obviously, we need to make budgetary decisions and our meetings impact that,” says Linda Allen, panel member and director of scientific meetings for the American Physiological Society. “But in this rapid change that we saw with COVID-19 lockdowns, pivoting to virtual, moving everything online and working together has really elevated the entirety of scientific meetings. And I hope the takeaway is science is collaborative and, at the association level, we are collaborative and should be collaborative.”

Building a Sustainable Business Model

Breaking away from a traditional, all on-site conference experience could create revenue streams through asynchronous access to meeting information, leverage the virtual experience to new members or those who could not make it to the physical meeting site, and change how pricing of the conference can reflect the value the participants get from attendance.

As the conference landscape changed due to the pandemic, the future landscape is still in flux as associations and societies reflect on their policies and planning, keeping an eye on how to attract more people to their events and generate more revenue.

A Brighter Way Forward?

With the experience of the sudden shift created by the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific conference organizers have an opportunity to build something new for the community to share information, interact with one another and foster a better meeting experience. Historically, these gatherings have been the foundation of scientific activity in the physical sciences community.

Ideally, the opportunities revealed in the report can impact future conferences in ways previously unconsidered. There is a brighter way forward, and the FACETS report discusses potential strategies and innovative tactics to help scientific societies plan for a successful future.

To download the report, please click here.