Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A modest proposal

One of the scientific journals I read has a Letters section, where people can write in. Often it is the sort of pissing-contest "I think Dr. Smith is misguided in his assertion in the article of volume 421, issue 3" where then Dr. Smith replies and tells the person how their assumptions are all wrong and they totally misunderstood him

I tend to ignore those articles.

But there was one this time, pushing "climate neutral conferences" - advocating adding a cost of "a few euros per participant" (you can see where the folks are from) to allow the purchase of carbon credits. (because, of course, NO ONE is paying enough for registrations to meetings already [eyeroll])

Frankly, they don't take the climate-friendliness far enough.

Instead, I would advocate for "virtual" conferences. Instead of asking people to travel to some inconvenient and usually expensive spot (a society I used to belong to was fond of meeting at a ski resort. It was the off season, but it was still wildly expensive), set up a conference link via the web. Most institutions now have distance-learning-type capability; people could present via uplink.

This would have many advantages:

1. Faculty members and other "working folk" who earn their bread by doing something else other than (or in addition to) research would not have to decide whether to skip a conference or cancel their classes. They could arrange to present at a time when they were not in class - or even better, arrange their presentation where their students could watch it. The students would both learn about the professor's research, and they would see how you present a talk. (Either a good example or a horrible warning, depending on the particular prof's speaking style).

2. The vast majority of us (by "us" I mean working professors - who are still the backbone of most conferences) don't have expense accounts. I have, at most, $150 a year of travel funds. That usually pays for the registrations at these things (And it won't, any more, if they decide to tack on a climate surcharge). I have to pay for the hotel room out of my own pocket. And meals out of my own pocket. And I have been places where I actually SAW restauranteurs jack up prices the day a conference began - when I had been there a day or so early. (I suppose it's good for them to make money, but it annoyed me to the point that I wouldn't eat at that place). So for some of us, we're paying $1000 or more of our own money for the privilege of going to a conference. (Which we kind of have to do, for tenure and promotion). And it seems that conference promoters often pick expensive areas: city centers, resorts, etc. I suppose it's nice to go to Snowbird if your expense account or grant is paying for all of it; for those of us peons who do a lot of our research on a shoestring, it really hurts to pay $200 for a hotel room. Even if we do something we should have been able to stop doing after we graduated grad school, and room-share with several other relative strangers.

3. It will eliminate the need to travel. I do not fly any more. I cannot face the groping, x-raying, being told to remove my shoes - the whole degrading rigamarole designed ostensibly to catch terrorists. Also, travel takes time. And it is expensive. And it can be risky, depending on how and where you have to travel. And you can face horrible delays: what about February conferences, when a massive late-season snowstorm grounds planes? How do you hold them then?

4. People would not have to arrange for extra child care. Or drag their kid along and hope there were enough activities. Spouses wouldn't have to be separated for a few days to a week (Yes, I know, many conferences have spousal activities, but taking two people is twice the cost of taking one). And for single parents, especially without nearby family, I'm sure the child care issue is a nightmare.

5. It would allow for more student participation. Student day-passes could be free - or almost free. For many grad students, cost really is an issue in going to meetings, and not everyone has an advisor with a grant who can pay for them to go.

6. People giving talks or presenting posters could agree to an option to have them archived online. After an "embargo" period, the talks and posters could be made available for viewing by non-conference attendees. It could even count (maybe) as a publication! For that matter, a small "admission fee" could be charged to see the posters and talks, to pay for the website maintenance.

and finally:

7. Much less carbon dioxide will be generated if no one is flying, driving, using those hotel rooms, etc., etc. It would be SO much more climate friendly!

And as for the complaints of those in the tourism industry: People who present at conferences generally don't spend a lot (out side of hotel and restaurants), and if they were freed from "Aw, man, I gotta go to Baltimore in August to meetings" they might just decide, "oh, hey! Since I didn't have to spend that $1200 going to a conference, I'll take the family to the Great Smoky Mountains and we can go camping!" (Okay, so maybe a different state/region gets the tourism dollars. But still).

I don't know. As I've said, I hate traveling to meetings: I hate worrying about whether delays will keep me from getting there on time, I hate spending hundreds of dollars for even a "cheap" hotel room, I hate feeling like I'm being screwed over by some of the people running restaurants who offer a "special conference menu" that has fewer choices and higher prices, and I don't like going to places I would never choose to go to for "fun."

So I think virtual conferences would solve a whole lot of problems.

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