The virtues of virtual and physical attendance at science meetings

On Sunday, the American Association for Cancer Research kicks off its five-day meeting in New Orleans, one of many crowding the annual meeting circuit. Conferences are intellectually enriching experiences, and great networking opportunities, but they are also costly and time-consuming. So what’s wrong with going virtual? Charles River Scientific Advisor Joe Francisco, who attended his first meeting in 1990 when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin, offers his two cents on why in-person meetings are uniquely valuable.

The transition from summer to fall is filled with annual milestones: for parents and students there’s the start of another school year, for those of us living in the Pacific Northwest it’s the anticipation (dread?) of another eight months of rain and for those of us who attend meetings and trade shows it’s the start of the conference season, which typically runs from September through June.

With the end of summer also comes the approach of the fourth quarter, a time when annual budgets are drafted, refined, slashed and finalized (not always in that order). In this regard, another annual milestone should be added to the list: the struggle between those who wish to attend meetings and those who control the budget.

Without a doubt attending a meeting can be expensive. The registration, transportation, housing, meals, and other miscellaneous expenses can easily total $2,000 per participant. But what if it were possible to satisfy both sides of the conference attendance / budget-writing struggle by going virtual? After all, we live in the Digital Age, where working remotely has never been easier. What’s more teleconferencing and video conferencing tools are growing more sophisticated by the day and eliminating many of the barriers that once necessitated face-to-face discussion. Even a college education can be obtained without stepping on a college campus.

Moreover, a number of major science meetings already stream some sessions over the Internet, live or viewable on-demand. While the number of recorded or live-streamed sessions is still rather limited—last fall’s American College of Toxicology meeting, for instance, only recorded three of the 17 sessions—if the demand is there, it may be just a matter of time before entire conferences are recorded or streamed.

But is a virtual experience really beneficial to the scientist? If one’s goal is to passively listen to a series of speakers, then by all means, virtual attendance would be just as effective as attending in person. It would save time, money, and the hassle of travel. But virtual attendance cannot address the goals of those who actively participate in conferences.

Let’s start by looking at ‘sessions’, the core structure around which many conferences are built. As stated above, virtual attendance allows one to hear what an individual speaker has to say, along with questions and answers from the floor. But there are other aspects, both subtle and not so subtle, that cannot be appreciated remotely: the incredulity on the faces of the audience after hearing a controversial comment from the speaker (did he/she just say that?), the quiet aside to one’s neighbor asking for enlightenment regarding a missed point, the opportunity to pose follow up questions to the speaker or another expert following the session. In many cases more enlightenment and edification is gained from these ancillary aspects than from the actual presentation(s), and so in this respect there is a clear advantage to physical participation over virtual attendance.

Another mainstay of the science meeting are the poster sessions. If one’s goal is to simply collect hard copies of posters to review later on, then there’s no need to be physically present. But poster sessions offer much more than thumbing through an abstract. They offer the opportunity to engage in discussion (often uninterrupted if the poster session is held on the last day of a conference) with one or a series of experts about any number of topics, ranging from one’s own area of expertise to something completely different and everything in between. In my own experience some of the most professionally memorable ‘aha’ moments have occurred during poster sessions where, after lengthy discussion with the presenter, I was finally able to grasp a point that had escaped my comprehension, even after reading the literature and listening to webinars. So if one of the goals of attending a conference is to learn from posters, this can only be accomplished through physical participation.

In short, it’s hard to imagine the traditional science meeting going the way of snail mail. Science is siloed enough and technology already discourages face-to-face conversation. But time will tell whether virtual attendance at a “Simm-posium” supplants live attendance, and what its impact is on scientists.

Interested in what others have to say about the benefits of conferences? Check out this recent article in Bioanalysis Zone with Charles River early career scientists Alison Dickson and Ruth Burns.

How to cite:

Francisco, Joe. Face to Face. Eureka blog. Apr 12, 2016. Available: