Conferences, Covid, Climate

As borders reopen and Covid-related restrictions are relaxed, lots of academics are celebrating the return of in-person conferences. I’m not one of them. Although I miss a lot of aspects of conferences, I’ve tried to avoid indoor meetings since the pandemic began, and there’s no reason to change that yet. And with the climate disaster getting worse all the time, I want to minimise, or at least reduce, air travel.

Another problem is that it’s become much more difficult for researchers from Africa and Asia to get access to conferences held in Europe and North America. One possible response would be to move the conferences to more generally accessible locations, but there aren’t many without problems of some kind.

At least for the moment, the most compelling argument in support of in-person conferences is that they provide junior researchers with the opportunity to establish contact with potential co-authors, future employers and so on. But, as with the “water cooler conversations” advanced as a reason for going back to the office, this is a serendipitous by-product of a costly process, rather like the non-stick frypans supposedly delivered by the US space program. Could we get the same benefits more directly.

The contact problem doesn’t really arise for established researchers. If I want to make contact with someone doing related research, I send them an email and suggest we open a discussion. That doesn’t always work (people are busy, and have different interests) but the same is true if you approach someone in person at a conference.

The difficulty for junior researchers is one of social convention. It’s much more socially acceptable to chat to a more senior colleague at a conference where you are both presenting than to cold-call them with an unsolicited email. But social conventions aren’t set in stone. As the social cost of in-person conferences goes up, and the benefits (relative to remote presentations) decline, it’s time to think about alternative ways of delivering those benefits.

Suppose we were starting from scratch, with today’s technological possibilities and constraints, and thinking about how to start and sustain collegial contact between researchers from different locations. How would we go about it? The first requirement, I think, would be an explicit norm that participating in an online meeting includes an obligation to be available to talk to junior researchers. One way might be to replace the current model of talk+discussant with something like talk+panel discussion. Perhaps presenters could nominate preferred discussants and a matching algorithm could be used.

We could also think about changes that could be made at the university level, such as explicit acknowledgement of interaction with developing country colleagues. This seems like it would be easy to sell to university administrators – no cost to them, and it would look good on the annual report. The harder bit would probably be to get academics to treat it as more than another exercise in box-ticking.

Note: Oddly enough, as I was writing this, I received an invitation to attend a conference in Perth where PhD students present their work, and get comments from established researchers. That encapsulates many of the difficulties I’ve discussed above. Still thinking about it.

11 thoughts on “Conferences, Covid, Climate

  1. Just suffering from a rather sustainable heat wave and non airconditioned rooms while case numbers seem to be arround all time highs in this region*- yet it seems impossible to just get anything to the outside, nevermind fancy stuff like video conferences. It is a very very different walk of life than academic conferences…yet the stubborn back to normal incrementalism is hardly any different.

    *seem because we basically gave up counting in Germany

  2. I’d like to focus on the Covid and Climate bit starting with with some quotes.

    “What is this ridiculous obsession with preventing any and all sense of fear during a raging pandemic and calamitous climate change? Your ancestors going back a few hundred million years experienced fear and it’s one reason they survived and you exist.” – T. Ryan Gregory.

    “It’s not catastrophising if it’s actually a catastrophe.” – Dr. David Berger.

    This is absolutely true and it IS a catastrophe. The collapse, a combined climate change induced and pandemics (yes, plural) induced collapse has begun. Nobody knows how far the collapse will go before it is arrested or if it can be arrested. I am certainly not going to make predictions apart from a ridiculously broad range. My guess is somewhere from 100 million global excess deaths (by say 2050) to human extinction (by say 2100). I actually think 1 billion global excess deaths by 2050 is quite possible. I will be dead by then, no matter what. I now doubt I will live to 76 let alone 96 (and I currently have no diagnosed medical preconditions except being aged 68). But I am not important (despite my propensity to obsesses over myself a bit).

    As far as academic conferences go, I would say “Don’t go”. The situation is dire. Someone could build a MMPORG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game) style conference application. Could get a bit weird depending on permitted virtual avatar choice and identification protocols. But theoretically it’s possible. People “in world” could “sit down” at talks and “mingle” at bars and strike up conversations. Just a thought.

    But as to the world. Yes, this is now a multi-factor catastrophe in progress. People should stop kidding themselves. Denialism of hard facts merely leads to much worse outcomes.

  3. Ikonoclast: – “I am certainly not going to make predictions apart from a ridiculously broad range. My guess is somewhere from 100 million global excess deaths (by say 2050) to human extinction (by say 2100). I actually think 1 billion global excess deaths by 2050 is quite possible.

    Per the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group’s report titled Food Fight: Climate change, food crises & regional insecurity, published Jun 28, refers to a Chatham House report Climate change risk assessment 2021, highlighting conclusions including:

    — Impacts likely to be locked in for the period 2040–2050 unless emissions rapidly decline include a global average 30% drop in crop yields by 2050;
    — The average proportion of global cropland affected by severe drought will likely rise to 32%
    a year (where severe drought is defined as greater than 50% yield reductions);
    — By 2040, almost 700 million people a year are likely to be exposed to droughts of at least six
    months’ duration, nearly double the global historic annual average.
    — Cascading climate impacts will “drive political instability and greater national insecurity, fuelling regional and international conflict”.

    Australia is ill-prepared for this:
    * in assessing likelihood;
    * understanding the consequences; and
    * not acting sufficiently fast and effective enough to reduce the risks – both in mitigation and adaptation.

  4. Geoff Miell,

    Precisely. Australia has seriously damaged its environment and its apparent food security could easily suffer a rapid reversal. I talk not only of flood, drought, bush-fires and climate zone shifts.I also talk of the Labor government’s cavalier disregard of the dangers of foot and mouth disease. For the sake of brainless bogans holidaying in Bali and cheap, junk-quality meat from Indonesia and China, they are willing to risk our livestock industry and cause up to $80 billion in losses per annum. This is for a claimed 12% risk that it could get in at current settings, IIRC.

    If it gets in, I am guessing the average person’s meat and milk bill would at least double. The poorest 50% of Australians would have real trouble affording enough protein. We are a cat’s whisker from catastrophe in so many ways now. Only the bogans, rich neolibs, politicians and the media cheer-squads can’t see it now.

  5. Ditto what “Ike” said about multi person online – (may I call you Ike? ) – from the bleachers.

    I didn’t like crowds pre-covid, and the rise of Zooming has made me able to attend several fascinating seminars that would have required expensive travel before.

    So as a civilian, who might like to watch many of these talks – and I am fine with not saying anything during them – I am all for that option.

    Meeting people in person favors certain kinds of people over others. Though, it is also kind of nice. I think the favoritism doesn’t necessarily favor by demographic groups as much as personality types, so getting rid of it might hurt women and Bipoc, but, otoh I could be wrong. It sounds like what you need is a way to encourage/force people to mentor people un-like themselves. I need to think about that more – I am just here to say that I really like the idea of being able to virtually attend these types of meetings. It’s strange to say but I don’t really know of many interesting online sites anymore, where people have real discussions. I guess most of that is private now – for understandable reasons, really.

  6. Also, I wonder if technology might not help with language too. Going out on a limb, I’m going to guess some of the PhD’s in other parts of the world may not be fluent in English. And if they are at all shy, that is another barrier too.

    And vice versa with other languages too, of course.

    So, more jobs for translators I guess. Feature!

  7. IRC is a plausible substitute for a full MMPORG for a lot of things. I’ve been having meetings that way for 20-odd years now. Once you get past about 10 participants you need a moderator, but it’s quite do-able with over 100 people if you stick to text (it does images, but not brilliantly).

    If you want images and video there are better ways than IRC, but IRC clients are available for everything right down to barely-a-smartphone. Those Raspberry Pi laptops are ample. So the cost of entry is mostly about connectivity, and that’s where IRC is good because it’s a cheap, lightweight protocol (and even downloading the app is lightweight).

    But right now academics are joining everyone else and saying “other people must change, we cannot”.

  8. N, online text translation is surprisingly good these days. I’ve got an IRC plug-in that lets me at least keep up with Rust conferences in German (which I can kind of read if I have a dictionary and lots of time, so real-time translation is essential). I’m not sure how text-to-speech plus translation goes, I suspect not well because the errors will compound. OTOH YouTube offers a bottled attempt at that and it’s generally plausible for the small number of languages it supports (mostly European to English, or at least those are the bits I’ve used)

  9. Which lens are you using JQ?
    “The first lens is the edifice of the Weberian or Bureaucratic state and the second lens is that we term the Relational state.” (^1.)

    Here is an example of JQ’s suggestion “such as explicit acknowledgement of interaction with developing country colleagues.”, and a great read about:

    “What lies beneath government

    “Buka Town in Bougainville shows how bureaucratic states could be reimagined, not as concrete buildings but as living gardens

    by Gordon Peake & Miranda Forsyth 
    3,800 words

    “But there is no equivalent language to represent the positive spectrum of relationality in governance.

    “Seeing the public servants of Bougainville and the state apparatus through the lens of the bureaucratic state alone was farcical. There was a bureaucracy, to be sure, but it was only a small part of the story. What was missing was the important role that individuals were playing in making things happen. In seeing only ‘the office’ rather than the individuals seated within it, we were missing what we call the ‘relational state’. This state is located out of direct view, where the bureaucrats develop and leverage their relational ties, histories, connections and affiliations to get stuff done.

    “This relational state is something like the underground network of fungi that connects whole forests together. 

    “To put this idea into practice in our daily lives and in our academic practice, we have started to catalogue what makes such networks thrive and reproduce, and what makes them wither and stagnate. For us, the permutations of rituals such as communal eating, drinking, praying, snatched moments of conversation among colleagues, warm hugs and joint exercise are promoters of connection.

    “It’s been some years since either of us have been in Buka, although there are days – because of the relationships we developed and the cellphones we have in our pockets – when it feels like we never left. The bureaucracy still has drowsy energy levels most of the time. In 2022, the government minister responsible for the public sector was quoted in the newspaper lamenting that public servants ‘start work late and leave early’. Negotiations with Papua New Guinea about the region’s future status are proceeding slowly.

    “And the bureaucratic edifices of Canberra and Washington, DC feel much the same too: meetings are being held, new strategies are being developed, new policies are being formulated and yet it all just feels a bit more-of-the-same. But we suspect that, to really know what is happening in all three places, and to shape our futures more clearly, we need to find better ways to acknowledge, nurture and discuss what lies beneath government. This means looking for the relational networks that link us all together and explain how events and policies unfold the way they do.”

    “Street-level bureaucrats in a relational state: The case of Bougainville

    Gordon Peake, Miranda Forsyth

    “We explore how street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) as “agents of the state” operate in circumstances where there is very little state, at least as state form is understood in the context in which street-level bureaucracy theorising has developed. Using the example of post-conflict Bougainville, we suggest SLBs actually construct the state through their wide-flung and deep networks of relationality. 

    “We propose that SLBs in the majority world may be helpfully understood through utilising two different lenses of the state, both of which tell an accurate but only partial story. The first lens is the edifice of the Weberian or Bureaucratic state and the second lens is that we term the Relational state. We illustrate how these two lenses together provide a more complete understanding and analytical insights into the role of SLBs through drawing upon our empirical data.”

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