Editor’s focus: The future of the face-to-face

The ongoing pandemic is doing ongoing harm not just to public health but to plans for healthcare and life-sciences conferences, but perhaps the changes can bring improvements and new ways of thinking about large professional meetings

Jeffrey Bouley
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It has been our practice over the years to run show preview features in 10 issues (give or take) of the magazine each year, giving you a taste of what’s to come in a variety of annual meetings and conferences, from ToxExpo to the annual Neuroscience meeting to AACR and all kinds of subject area groups in between them.
How quickly things change with a global pandemic.
Earlier this year, we had show previews for the Society of Toxicology’s Annual Meeting & ToxExpo (January issue), Analytica 2020 (February issue) and the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (March issue)—the physical meeting plans for which were scrapped in all three cases after we went to print and mailed issues of DDNews out.
ToxExpo initially just canceled, but was able to regroup and offer poster viewing online and a series of live webinars to make a virtual version of the meeting. Analytica 2020 was moved to an Oct. 19-22 date. AACR 2020 has transformed into two virtual meetings: one that was held from April 27-28, and a second part to be held June 22-24.
No one knew what to do at the time, and many of us expected things to be “back to normal” before (or at least during) spring. But as COVID-19 became more widespread and deadly, it became clear that most of the meetings planned for spring and summer were going to be canceled or delayed even if their various organizers hadn’t made official announcements yet.
And so with this issue of the magazine, which was scheduled to have a show preview for the annual meeting of the International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), I made the decision not to plan for a full show preview and instead to offer a short feature section on stem cells (which you can read by clicking here), in which I would briefly mention the ISSCR show (which at the time was still slated to be held physically) and feature mostly news of stem cell R&D.
Lo and behold, by the time I started putting together the section for this issue, ISSCR had made the decision to go virtual, which is reflected in the brief story about the show in our “Spotlight on Stem Cells.”
At this point, I make no assumptions that even the biggest and most important shows in fall or early next year (like the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting and SLAS 2021) will happen as originally planned. They may or they may not be physical meetings. If they are physical, they may be scaled back or drastically reconceptualized. We will have to wait and see.
The fact is that given what this pandemic has wrought and given that we may not have a vaccine or effective therapeutics for another year give or take—maybe even two years or more—I think many of us are wondering if we are on the cusp of seeing an end to many physical meetings.
Oh, I don’t think they will disappear entirely. Especially for very big shows and for shows where technology tends to be showcased heavily, we will probably never see a literal end to major physical gatherings on scientific topics. Viruses or no viruses, we are social beings. Pandemics of the past didn’t stop social gatherings, and even though technology makes virtual gatherings easier these days, I still don’t think we will abandon getting together face-to-face in groups of hundreds or thousands of people.
But I do think things will scale back. More physical meetings and conferences will probably find ways to keep the density of attendees down, even if the sheer numbers remain the same. More shows may split into virtual and physical components that are synergistic. Some show organizers may discover that they are better off staying virtual going forward. Regardless, though, I think that many organizations are going to be thinking about remaining more agile so that if we have another unexpected disease outbreak, they can react and adapt faster than was the case so far this year.

Jeffrey Bouley

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