EASST General Meeting on the Future of Conferencing

by EASST Council

In Autumn 2022, we canvassed all 814 EASST members’ views on the future of conferencing. In light of the recent pandemic, the growing need to take action on the environmental impact of international academic travel, and the rising cost of accommodation and travel, we wanted to look afresh at what we do as an organisation. The biennial EASST conferences and the joint meetings with 4S are important events for our community, alongside the national STS association conferences that take place. They facilitate intellectual exchange, community-building, collaboration, and career development, and the surplus generated by the conferences provides EASST with funds to support our scholarly activities, most notably the annual EASST Fund.  

In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 emergency, we went entirely online for the EASST/4S conference organised by our colleagues in Prague. In 2022, we returned to an in-person conference in Madrid in a commercial venue. Now, we are actively exploring how best to stage future conferences after the 2024 EASST/4S meeting in Amsterdam. Many of the members (259 in total) who completed the survey indicated that they wished to continue to attend conferences in-person but were also supportive of holding hybrid conferences. 

At the April 2023 EASST Council meeting in Leiden, we discussed the future of our conferences and came to the view that we should actively explore the possibility and desirability of running future events, beginning with the 2026 conference, in a fully hybrid mode. In doing this, we are seeking to achieve the following:   

    1.  Greater inclusivity, by allowing researchers with caring responsibilities or chronic health conditions for example to participate in events without being there in person; 
    2. Reduction in the environmental impact of international travel by academics by giving participants the option of presenting online;  
    3. Reduction in the cost barriers that prevent some from travelling to and attending conferences in person.

However, there are several issues to consider in greater depth here. Can EASST, as a membership organisation, adopt a blanket policy on the format of future conferences or should local organisers have a say in whether to stage a hybrid conference or hold one entirely in person? It is also likely that, due to the cost of hiring equipment where needed, purchasing Zoom licences, and additional labour (to provide both in person and virtual support, as well as hybrid administration/communication), registration fees for hybrid conferences will be higher. In this context, we may wish to revisit the fee structures for conferences. 

There are also different ways of staging a hybrid conference. We set out two ways below: 

    1. Fully hybrid conference in a single location that also permits full in-person conferencing. This location would ideally be one where lower carbon travel is also possible, which may mean that poorly connected locations may not be suitable to host conferences. Community nodes could join remotely, for example if a department or national association had a space and the set-up they could connect to the conference and participate in it that way. There would be a single Local Organizing Committee and panels/sessions/paper would be advertised and run in more or less the traditional way, with some speakers/participants joining via an online platform. 
    2. Fully hybrid conference in either two or perhaps even three locations that also permits full in-person conferencing but in places closer to where many researchers are located, so that the impact of travelling to those venues is less than in Option 1.1 Community nodes could join remotely, for example if a department or national association had a space and the set-up they could connect to the conference. Centres would need to enter joint proposals to hold conferences and, organisationally, this would be more complex with a ‘Local’ organising committee comprising representatives from different locations, and would come with extra costs and challenges. Time zones would also be another consideration, although within Europe these would not be that great. Session organisers would have to specify a physical place at one of the nodes for their sessions/panels as well as having people joining online. 

The actual uptake of the online option is hard to predict in advance and will vary from one event to another. NomadIT is gaining some valuable experience and insight into the staging of hybrid events and the number of delegates likely to take up the online option to present their work (to-date between 15% and 25%). These represent significant reductions in travel and its associated environmental impacts. 

The proposal therefore is for the membership to discuss these options at an online special meeting in autumn 2023, and to gather additional information and perspectives from EASST members on the future of our conferences. Members will be emailed about the specific date and time in due course. 

1 For detail on multi-hub conferences see: Parncutt, R., et al. (2021). „The Multi-hub Academic Conference: Global, Inclusive, Culturally Diverse, Creative, Sustainable.“ Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frma.2021.699782/full