We’re scientists who don’t want to see business travel to return to normal after the pandemic. Here’s why.

roblox developer conference
Attendees at the Roblox Developer Conference on in Burlingame, California.

  • Katherine H. Freeman is a geochemist at Penn State, and Raymond Jeanloz is a geophysicist at the UC Berkeley.
  • They say virtual conferences should continue post-pandemic to improve access and be more eco-conscious.
  • This article was produced in collaboration with Knowable Magazine, a digital publication covering science.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 2020, the annual committee meeting of the journal we edit was a bit of a mess. It took place in March, just days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, so some attendees canceled their travel even as others were arriving at the meeting site. At the last minute, we pivoted to a hybrid meeting, with half the attendees in-person and the other half virtual. While the meeting was successful in terms of editorial decisions, the mixed format hampered our normally free-flowing discussions.

Katherine H. Freeman
Katherine Freeman.

The 2021 meeting of the journal, the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, was entirely virtual. And it went much more smoothly.

Raymond Jeanloz
Raymond Jeanloz.

By then, we all had a year’s experience working in an online environment. Everyone was remote, which made the means of communication equitable, and we made sure each member had a chance to participate. We included breaks to reduce video fatigue, and breakout rooms for parallel small-group discussions that helped increase efficiency. We developed a more scripted schedule that we followed closely to ensure that everyone knew what to expect.

In many professions, business travel is part of the job

This is particularly true in science, where international collaborations are the norm. But as we look ahead to a post-COVID world, we’re not sure that we want to go back to spending so much of our professional lives in planes, hotels, restaurants and rental cars. There are obvious benefits to in-person meet-ups, but they don’t always outweigh the costs: time, money and the effects of travel on the climate. More industries should explicitly consider those costs, and the benefits of virtual meetings.

We’re not the only ones who don’t want a return to “normal”: More than 400 scientists have signed a letter urging US scientific organizations to explore more remote meetings in the future. A recent poll of more than 900 readers of the journal Nature found that nearly three-quarters want scientific meetings to be all virtual, or at least to have a remote option, even after COVID is over.

The benefits are obvious. A 2019 analysis from Runzheimer found that every business trip costs $1,300 per traveler. To US companies, that translated to roughly $112 billion in expenses in 2019 alone. Those costs render in-person meetings off-limits to many companies and individuals, effectively widening existing gaps.

Even if people can afford to buy a plane ticket, they may have other limitations that make the trip impossible, such as illness or challenges with securing childcare

Some online accessibility features, such as real-time captioning, are not always available at in-person meetings. Virtual meetings can eliminate some of those barriers, and they may be more accessible: When the European Geosciences Union made its 2020 meeting virtual, attendance rose from a typical 16,000 to 26,000.

Travel also has an enormous impact on climate. In one estimate published in Nature, air travel to a single scientific meeting – the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, attended by 28,000 people from around the world – generated the equivalent of 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the average amount emitted by the entire city of Edinburgh over the course of a week.

We can’t just flip a switch to virtual meetings without working out some kinks. Our 2021 virtual editorial committee meeting started at 8 a.m. California time, which was midnight for a colleague in Japan – who then had to stay awake for a further eight hours. It will be near impossible to pick a time that is convenient for everyone around the world, but we need to make sure that benefits outweigh inconveniences for each participant.

Virtual meetings also must provide ways for people to interact socially, particularly newcomers

Dinners and receptions at in-person events can help attendees new to the scene get to know other board members and make invaluable work connections, but these are difficult to replicate over a screen. Work discussions (let alone socializing) can be particularly tricky during hybrid meetings, so ways must be found to ensure that remote participants – including those from underrepresented communities – can network as fully and freely as people who are able to attend in person. Small group meetings ahead of time can ensure that each individual’s insights are clearly heard, and breakout rooms designated for specific topics help constructively focus discussions.

Of course, virtual or hybrid meetings can’t replicate everything about the in-person experience. Attendees may lose the opportunities for exquisite restaurant meals with colleagues, or the excuse for a family trip. And there are intangible benefits to gathering experts in a room to mutually educate each other, where you can easily interject or pull someone aside. But given the potential benefits of virtual meetings to improve access, cut expenses, and help the planet, we want to see more of them in the future. Let’s not go back to the way things were before.

Katherine H. Freeman is a geochemist at Penn State. Raymond Jeanloz is a geophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley. This article was produced in collaboration with Knowable Magazine, a digital publication covering science and its emerging frontiers.

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The UK government should abandon plans to lift COVID-19 restrictions in mid-June to avoid a potential ‘wave’ of new cases, 2 scientists who advise officials say

boris johnson
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

  • Two leading scientists are urging the UK government to postpone the date for lifting COVID-19 restrictions.
  • The government’s plan is for all COVID-19 restrictions to be dropped on June 21.
  • The scientists warn of a potential “wave” in cases of the variant first found in India.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Scientists have warned the UK government that it should abandon its plans to lift all coronavirus restrictions in June, amid rising cases of the variant first found in India.

The government is set to lift restrictions on June 21. But scientists who advise the government are concerned about rising case numbers, and the potential for cases to further rise when people start mixing more.

Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program on Monday that although new cases are “relatively low,” there had been an “exponential growth in the number of new cases” triggered by the variant identified in India.

He said the government should postpone unlocking the country by “a few weeks.”

“All waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive … What we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave,” Gupta said.

The UK recorded more than 3,000 new coronavirus infections on Sunday, according to government data. This is the fifth consecutive day with at least 3,000 new cases. Before that, the UK had not recorded 3,000 new daily cases since April 12.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, also warned about the lifting of restrictions, telling ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” on Monday that “it’s unfortunate that everyone’s got this particular date in their head.”

“What we need to do is understand how things are going and adjust accordingly. What we’ve done wrong in the past is left it too late and delayed making decisions, ultimately pushed them back and then ended up with large waves of infection,” he said.

The government can’t rule out extending restrictions, environment secretary George Eustice told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today program on Monday.

Eustice said the government had to take things “one step at a time.”

More than 39 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to government figures. Studied suggest Pfizer’s and AstraZeneca’s shots are highly effective against the variant first found in India, which makes up three quarters of all coronavirus cases in the UK, according to a Financial Times report.

The UK added another vaccine to its list on Friday when it approved Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose coronavirus vaccine, securing 30 million doses.

“We have to make that judgement a couple of weeks before. It will only be by then that we will see the full impact of the latest easements we made on 17 May,” he said.

A final decision on whether restrictions will be lifted in the UK will be made a week before on June 14.

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