Because of pollution, conferences should be virtual

Perhaps conferences made sense fifty years ago. We did not have internet, and the pollution was not as bad. Today, we can have effective virtual meetings, while the pollution has reached a level of crisis, see this moving talk by Greta_Thunberg. Moving to a system of virtual conferences is I believe a duty of every scientist. Doing so will cut the significant air travel emissions that come from shipping scientists across the world. To attend a climate summit in the USofA, Greta will sail across the Atlantic ocean on a zero emission boat.

We can keep everything the way it is, but simply give the talks online. This change doesn’t involve anybody higher up in the political ladder. It only involves us, the program chairs, the steering committees.

While we wait for that, we can begin by virtualizing the physical STOC/FOCS PC meetings, whose added value over a virtual meeting, if any, does not justify the cost; and by holding conferences where the center of mass is, instead of exotic places where one can combine the trip with a vacation at the expense of tax payers’ money and everybody’s health. And that is also why I put a bid to hold the 2021 Conference on Computational Complexity in Boston.

NSF panels, making decisions worth millions, routinely have virtual panelists (I was the last few times). So why do we insist on shipping scientists across the globe multiple times a year to give 15-minute talks which to most people are less useful than spending 20 minutes reading the paper on the arxiv?

11 thoughts on “Because of pollution, conferences should be virtual

  1. I agree with the overall point (we should reduce traveling whenever possible; for the sake of climate, but also because it affects differently different groups — and those who cannot travel (family, visa, funding) at disadvantaged). One issue, however, is that one may argue an advantage of conferences is the ability to interact with people in an impromptu fashion, to foster new connections and collaborations, etc. That’s somewhat harder on Skype.

    (One way to mitigate this could be to have most conferences online, and much fewer in person. I don’t know what weighted combination of the two would be reasonable and effective.)

    I disagree with the US-centric point of view in the second paragraph, however. “Holding conferences where the center of mass is”: this puts by definition at a disadvantage those outside: Europe, India, East Asia… It puts at a huge disadvantage those not able to obtain easily a visa to the US. And even if that were not the case, as far as mitigating climate change goes, I’d like to see the numbers about how much better that is, assuming all people willing to go get a chance to: a lot of short domestic flights + quite a few very long distance ones, vs. a bunch of medium-distance ones. (Not that I know the numbers; just questioning the implicit assumption that “center of mass is better” for that particular measure, the carbon offset.)

  2. Great idea!

    There is indeed no need nowadays for physical conferences. Pollution is one reason. But there are many other factors that make physical conferences, long travels, etc. something that should be avoided. First, time; we simply waist too much time on travel. This is not an effective way to spend one’s working hours. Effort, like time, it’s too much hassle to arrange these trips, and then to actually loose one day to go to the venue and another day for the return trip! Health and safety; going all around the world simply increases the risk of injury and specifically getting sick, either due to getting a flu, or destabilizing one’s immune system, etc. Comfort; I don’t find conferences a comfortable way of interacting with people. It is much more comfortable to interact with one person online, then to meet hundreds of participants stuck in a room. Academic benefit: there is simply a very negligible benefit for conferences. Unlike workshops dedicated to a subject, conferences do not seem to drive cooperation between scientists as mush as workshops.

    That said, I agree with ccanonne, that the idea to hold conferences “where the center of mass is”, is wrong. First, indeed, the US is not an easy place to attend for most international scholars. Also, I am not convinced it is indeed the center of mass at all. Finally, by defining Boston as the center of mass, you simply perpetuate a marginalization of TCS into Boston and its neighbours, so academically this is harmful.

  3. canonne and cs prof: Thank you for your messages and your support!

    Regarding the “center of mass.” I only wrote that in case we are too paralyzed to take anything but baby steps. It seems evident to me, from the conferences and workshops I attended, that often other locations existed in the world which would have been better. For example, holding a major CS conference in Asia rather than the USA I think pollutes more. It isn’t too hard to collect the data, but I wouldn’t want this to distract from the main point so let me stop here.

  4. Let’s say that all scientists stop having conferences. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider two possible scenarios:

    You are right. Academic production of the world does not change
    You are wrong. Academic production of the world drops by 0.5% which, using some handwaving argument, roughly implies that we spend 0.5% longer on making the world CO2 neutral.

    Let’s assume, again for simplicity, that in case 1. we are CO2 neutral in 100 years and in case 2 that we will be CO2 neutral in 100.5 years.

    Googling tells me that about 7.000.000 scientists live on earth, which is roughly 1/1000 of all people. Let’s say each of these today fly to and from 2 conferences (I made up the number 2 myself) per year totalling ~30.000.000 flights per year. Google also tells me that there are currently roughly passengers taking a flight each year. Thus, scientists going to conferences is roughly 0.6% of all flight passengers. Finally, Google tells me that roughly 2% of the worlds CO2 footprint comes from flying.

    Thus, the net value of scientists not flying for 100 years is about 0.02 * 0.006 * 100 = 1.2% of the yearly CO2 footprint of the world.

    In the second case, it roughly costs 50% of a yearly CO2 footprint of the world.

    Even if there is a large chance that you are right, I don’t like the risk vs reward of proposal 1. vs 2.

    I know there are lots of other factors to consider and that the estimates above are very rough. However, stating that it is “a duty of every scientist” to drop physical conferences is in my opinion too strong without a deeper analysis.

    1. That’s a nice analysis, but you have forgotten an additional option that I think is more reasonable: due to a transformation to a virtual conference system, and the abolishment of long distance physical conferences, the scientific production is increased either mildly or drastically. I would speculate on the latter, due to more people being able to actually take part in conferences, and conferences with some of their interactions being recorded better for the masses and future scientists, let alone the the huge saving in money for grant agencies, and allowing more scientists to get grants, funding, etc. Hence, this cancels out Case 2 in your analysis, leaving us with an almost risk free plan, that has considerably larger reward than risk.

      I think that overall the argument against physical conferences is very clear, even without considering pollution, as I explained in my comment above.

  5. I think that giving the actual talk is the l-e-a-s-t important thing when attending a cs theory conference (this is the field I am familiar with), especially for students, postdocs and young faculty. In such conferences, I met many young and senior researchers, ones that I read their papers and vice versa. These meetings raised many research discussions, and potential collaborations.

    Regarding the “pollution” claim. I am missing the trade-off analysis here. What is the estimated pollution caused? Say that all scientists in the world stop traveling overseas: How much pollution will it reduce (if any)? What are the consequences on the world’s academic productivity?
    My feeling is that the positive significantly outweighs the negative.

  6. I agree that at conferences talking to people is often more consequential than giving talks, but I am not sure if this aspect works as well for most people as it does for some. My general impression is that smart people pretty much thrive in any environment. There is also a number of people who only attend a small chunk of the conference, sometimes even flying in and out on the same day just to give their talk! We could still have a small number of face-to-face meetings in some convenient places to foster interaction; that is not excluded.

    Pollution can, apparently, be measured. I heard of some recent efforts towards quantifying the effect of just one flight, and a quick Google search reveals this: Here’s how much of the Arctic you’re personally responsible for melting. “Dirk Notz calculates that for every person who drives a car 2,500 miles or takes a round-trip flight from New York to London, three square meters (about 32 square feet) of sea ice vanishes from the Arctic.”

    By contrast, I think the effects of physical conferences on the world’s productivity are very hard or impossible to calculate. Measuring progress in science, especially in theoretical fields, is quite tricky. On top of that, people did research even before the flight craze, and cutting down flights would save money which could be used towards creating research jobs. And there are communities where if I am not mistaken people tend to fly less, for example because they mostly publish in journals. Is computer science better off because we have the physical conference system?

    Between a measurable evil and an unclear gain, I think the choice is clear.

  7. We can keep everything the way it is, but simply give the talks online. This change doesn’t involve anybody higher up in the political ladder. It only involves us, the program chairs, the steering committees.

    Motivated by your suggestion, I tried to “consume” parts of the recent JuliaCon 2019. The virtual part of that conference for the “consumer” seems more than good enough, the streaming was live with chat comments enabled, audio is good, video contains both (big, live) slides and (smaller) presenter physical performance. Not sure whether it would have been possible for a speaker to give a virtual presentation without being physically present. I started with the first recording, a ‘Keynote: Professor Steven G. Johnson’ taking 52 minutes. Very nice, but a bit long to consume. So I continued with a 12 minutes recording. That was very good. Then I tried to continue with a 31 minutes recording. Not a keynote. Did not finish watching it. Conclusion: Going virtual might reinforce the tendency to focus more on the prominent researchers (even if they present longer stuff) and on the shorter stuff.

    There might be other (possibly solvable) issues with virtual conferences. Last year I attended LEELIS-III workshop (Low-energy electrons: Lithography, Imaging, and Soft Matter). There were both academic talks and talks from industry. Both types of speakers sometimes presented slides or said stuff which they preferred not to have on record. People in the audience still took photos, but those probably won’t get widely distributed. Maybe less of an issue for pure academic conferences. Or maybe an actual thing to think about how to selectively block small parts of content from going on record in a virtual conference.

    (Note: The reason why I posted the thoughts above is that Gil Kalai recently tried to start a discussion in the comments on his blog. I tried to contribute, but got the feeling that it would be much easier to try to contribute to the discussion here.)

  8. Thank you for posting your thoughts; I find it especially interesting to hear about what happens at conferences I am not familiar with.

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