Sunday, February 03, 2008

Making a Green Meeting

Recently, the American Geophysical Society faced an unusual problem before their annual meeting. As an international group of scientists dedicated to greening the planet, the act of holding the meeting where scientists from all over the planet converge by aircraft at one spot would mean a huge contribution to the baddie gases by the members motivated to protect it. Thus a discussion arose as to what could be done to green scientific meetings in general. For people reading who have no idea why scientists have to meet (much less have an idea what they actually do) regularly- take my word for it- its important. I am typing this on my way to the Biophysical Society annual meeting across 2500 miles from where I live, in a half-empty Airbus A320. It is one of the biggest international meetings with more than 5000 attendees from any part of the world that has a reasonably fast computer (theoretical biophysics) to sophisticated particle colliders. This year, we are meeting in Long Beach, CA. The American Chemical Society is so huge that it needs to have two such huge meetings every year. Finally, one needn’t be an exclusive attendee at one meeting- you can go to any number depending on your time  and ideas (both of which scientists have a lot of). Scientists need to exchange ideas and set up collaborations on a regular basis. Meetings are the best place to discuss recent data (data that is published is usually more than a year old), generate ideas and ask questions directly to the people whose papers you read. A major perk of being an academic scientist (actually, an academic anything) is that you get to travel a lot if you want.

One obvious idea that was floated was to persuade the organizers to set up a virtual meeting via videoconferences. There are certain obstacles to this- time zones, IT networking ease, differing internet speeds and the ability to record your discussion surreptitiously. Having given many talks and attended discussions via videoconferencing, I must say that the technology needs to get far more robust and integrated than it is now. Few may know that a seminar delivered over the web is called a Webinar and this word was voted one of the ugliest words of 2006. However, the future will no doubt see this mature and hopefully get a spiffier name. Another idea is to decrease the number of big meetings and have small, focused meetings in areas close to universities. One example of this series is the Gordon Research Conferences where students and professors all live in university dorm-style housing and eat together at meals. These conferences are very productive both in terms of teaching and collaborations. A third alternative may be to expedite the publication system of scientific data by the journals. The publications should be made online only and the current peer-review system should be done away with. The online scientific community decides which papers are good by a system similar to Digg. The peer-review system does not have high success in detecting fraudulent data and adds many months to the publication of results. I think in future, we will see a mixture of the above and have less of these mega-meetings, thereby making science greener.

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