This week, I’m attending Botany 2020, the major annual botany conference that brings together six scientific societies from around the United States and beyond: the Botanical Society of America, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, the American Fern Society, the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, and the Society of Herbarium Curators. Originally planned to take place in Anchorage, Alaska, the conference is virtual this year, of course, but that hasn’t stopped 1100 attendees from 44 countries from attending.
As expected with a conference this size, there are many symposia, workshops, colloquia, and concurrent sessions to choose from, as well as daily poster sessions. Featured speakers this week are covering a wide variety of topics. There are two lectures focussing on diversity and inclusion in education and in the sciences more broadly, there are talks on African plant systematics, the evolution of angiosperm seeds, sexual deception in orchids, communicating the importance of plants, and on how herbaria are preserving biodiversity. The line-up has something for everyone and ranges from deep dives on research findings to broad overviews of timely topics in academia at large.
One of the most striking aspects of Botany 2020 for me so far is how differently organized it is from the Canadian Botanical Association (CBA) virtual conference that I attended last month. (Full disclosure: I’m employed by the CBA as editor of their society bulletin.) The Botany 2020 organizers have opted to run all contributed papers and symposia as pre-recorded talks that become available at a scheduled time, with the speaker monitoring a chat box where people can type questions for them during and after the video. This puts the onus on attendees to start videos at the correct time and try to keep up, versus a moderator keeping things on schedule. The videos remain available throughout the rest of the conference for later viewing. As you watch the talks, you have little sense of how many other people are watching along with you, though the Twitter hashtag and on-site chat boxes have been very active and positive. Featured speakers are live over Zoom and their talks are recorded for those who wish to view them later.
The CBA, by contrast, ran their entire conference live over Zoom, with a few socially-distanced moderators sitting in a lecture room at the host university keeping everything on schedule. You had the impression that there was actually a physical room somewhere where the conference was taking place, which I found a bit easier to wrap my head around than the disembodied feel of a site hosting pre-recorded videos. Interpersonal interaction was preserved by the ability of multiple people to un-mute themselves and talk (sometimes over each other, just like at a real conference).
Now, the CBA is a much smaller organization than the societies that make up Botany 2020. Of course some things will need to be adjusted for different group sizes. The approach Botany 2020 has taken sacrifices most real-time personal interaction for the very high level of organization that I think was necessary due to the size of the event. Pre-recording also results in more relaxed speakers and minimizes the technological failures that happen when each speaker is trying to share their screen just as their talk is supposed to begin. Ultimately, the pre-recorded approach even results in more botany learning for attendees because concurrent sessions are no longer an issue. Botany 2020, as someone on Twitter joked, has mastered time travel… you can always go back and see what you missed. I suspect many conference-goers are spending their evenings this week watching double amount of sessions they’d ever have seen at a live conference.
Overall, both approaches have their strengths and drawbacks, but I think the Botany 2020 organizers made the right choice given the size of the conference they were putting on.
Virtual conferences won’t be to everyone’s taste. No matter what the set-up, the casual face-to-face chats and end-of-day meals and drinks that botanists cherish in their conferences are lacking. But what we lose in human contact, we gain in accessibility. As a parent to two very young children, I’d have attended at most one conference this year, and doing so would have been complicated. As it is, I’ll be fully participating in three conferences this season, from the comfort of my home and without special childcare arrangements. For those who are barred from attending far-off conferences due to financial or physical challenges, that barrier has been largely lifted. I sincerely hope that even when we’re all able to be in a room together once more, societies will continue to offer their sessions virtually. Greater accessibility can only be good for our science.