As we close the chapter on a successful—if different—AHA conference in this pandemic year, and usher in the much-anticipated vaccination phase of the global pandemic, it is worth taking a moment to consider what future science and scientific conferences may gain from the insights of 2020 in the years to come and beyond. As my colleague Mo Al-Khalaf writes in his recent blog, 2020 has been a year of rapid adaptation and innovative solutions, particularly in the development and sharing of medical knowledge and expertise. Consider, for example, that four short weeks ago as we convened virtually for Scientific Sessions, the prospect of the rollout of two highly efficacious vaccines against COVID19 within weeks would’ve seemed so optimistic as to be foolhardy. Indeed, as quickly as COVID changed the reality of daily life, the scientific community changed its practices—for developing and testing therapies, sharing lessons learned from hard-hit regions, and revising journal and conference experiences so as to expand access to information and knowledge. It has been an imperfect process that has at times revealed weaknesses in existing systems, demonstrating for example the value of thorough peer-review in curating research and the bureaucratic roadblocks to rapid maneuvering of healthcare systems to respond to and prepare for surges, and highlighting the individuals and communities routinely excluded from scientific gains.
Nonetheless, the benefits of an at least partly virtual conference experience should not be lost as we tentatively allow ourselves to imagine a post-pandemic world. For starters, virtual conferences in the cardiology world have resulted in higher turnout than seen in prior years, likely due to the reduced costs of participation, ease of access to content, and time flexibility for participation. In fact, the European Society of Cardiology saw attendance increase by nearly four-fold this summer from a previous recent record of about 33,000 professionals representing 150 countries in 2019 to more than 125,000 professionals from 211 countries in 2020.1 Much of this growth likely represents groups previously disadvantaged when it came to conference participation, including students and trainees whose time and financial restrictions are often more stringent than more advanced stage practitioners, as well as providers with family and caregiving responsibilities for whom travel to distant cities for several days may be an impractical proposition. An online platform offers a degree of anonymity and equalizing of audience members, moreover, encouraging participation in discussion by attendees. One need look only as far as the chat boxes of live events at this year’s Sessions for evidence of strangers—ranging from students to experts—coming together to discuss research methodology and implications. The inclusion of such groups is to the advantage of all in the end, as the value of scientific conferences undoubtedly rests on their ability to reflect the diversity of the field and draw upon the most experiences and broadest audience.
At the same time, virtual formats have resulted in a smaller carbon footprint within the scientific community. Since the pre-pandemic world of 2015, climate change researchers have urged scientific groups to seek innovative ways to convene and share information, recognizing that academic researchers represent a high-emitter group due to frequent air travel for conferences, meetings and fieldwork, and noting the benefits of example setting to strengthen public investment in behavioral change for climate protection.2 As conferences in other fields of science experimented with virtual components, the pandemic ultimately forced all of us to embrace a more dramatic adjustment to entirely virtual experiences. Though not perfect—as others have noted, virtual conferences have suffered from a loss of some networking opportunities—this year’s initial experience demonstrates that virtual conferencing is both possible and practical. This will be an invaluable lesson as the existential crisis of climate change increasingly occupies the shared consciousness of society.
Sooner or later, our lives will begin the transition back to something resembling the world before COVID19. This will be for the better, as we again benefit from the experience of human contact and connection but need not come with an erasure of the lessons learned during this challenging year. Future conferencing may indeed benefit from a component in-person participation, but the demonstrated demand for a virtual experience suggests that on-demand lectures and virtual live chats are here to stay, and we will all be the better for it.
- Figures from ESC Congress.
- Quere CL, Capstick S, Corner A, Cutting D, Johnson M, Walker-Springett K, Whitmarsh L and Wood R. Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st century. 2015.
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Shreya Rao, MD, MPH is a general cardiology fellow with clinical and research interests in cardiovascular imaging and prevention at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. She is currently enrolled in a T-32 funded research track dedicated to studying racial disparities in cardiovascular disease and care. @shreyarao87