Friday, October 05, 2007

Scientific meetings - a lot of hot air

Earlier this year, I heard evolutionary biologist Hervé Philippe speak at the Royal Society's Linnaeus 300 meeting. Before he mentioned anything phylogenomic, however, he spoke about the carbon footprint of his research.

With labs, computers and travel to meetings this added up to a whopping 40+ tons. Philippe's suggestion to help get this down was to make all annual scientific meeting biennial, thus halving the massive emmissions of flying scientists.

It struck me as an excellent idea (and one that he should publicize - I can see no obvious mention of it anywhere online). As well as cutting down emissions, it would send a powerful signal if the scientific community en masse could institute such a change. And it came back to me when I read the piece Greening the meeting in today's Science.

Regarding the discplines that El Gentraso is mostly interested in, it's good to see that many attendees at the Society for Conservation Biology and Ecological Society of America meetings offset their flights - although given the uncertainty about offsetting, you might be better off giving the money to a group that campaigns against climate change.

But it was disappointing to see that the SCB couldn't agree to cut down on the frequency of meetings: "some members considered the meeting's exchange of ideas too important to forgo".

Get over yourselves. I know that e-mail, message boards, the phone, video-conferencing, Second Life and so on aren't as immediate, or necessarily as productive as face-to-face, but isn't that a price that a bunch of conservation biologists, for crying out loud, ought to be willing to pay once every other year? It seems like a major failure of imagination (or maybe junket lust). If people really threw themselves into finding alternatives, they'd find better ways to use the technology and to structure meetings to get the most out of it.

The ESA, meanwhile has "slimmed down the program book, began using soy-based inks, and now distributes its advertiser kit only electronically. The society also arranges with hotels to change linen less frequently and has removed Styrofoam from the meeting entirely. Some of the changes make more of a difference than others, but "every little bit helps," says Michelle Horton, a meeting organizer at ESA."

The words 'burns' and 'fiddling' spring to mind.

1 comment:

Oliver said...

or an extra wrinkle, go to biennial "real world" events and explicitly set out to try and invent online alternatives for the off years. If all the big conferences were doing that, there would be a range of competing online formats that people could judge the success of...