Virtual Virtuosi or Vacuous Vassals: The #BES2020 Festival of Ecology Write-Up

Every year after I am finished with Europe’s largest ecology conference I write a summary of my most memorable thoughts and experiences. Truth be told, I didn’t think I’d bother this year. Surely a virtual stand-in for the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting can’t be that noteworthy? But here we are.

Let’s get the obvious over with – this year has been a nightmare for most. Fieldwork has been cancelled, offices and campuses have been shut down, and many researchers (including those completing PhDs, a group already disproportionately suffering from a cocktail of stresses, anxieties and other fun stuff) have been wracked with even more stress than usual.

But if we’re going to take silver linings from it, it’s that 2020 proved that virtual conferences could be a success. The BES Annual Meeting – for me at least – was proof of this. Was it exactly the same as a regular conference? Of course not. Did it have almost nine months to learn from other conference’s mistakes? Sure. But was it an engaging learning experience with rich networking opportunities that turned out to be a lot of fun? Hell yes. We now have the beginnings of a solution to the moral quandary that many ecologists felt well before 2020 – how can we square campaigning for sustainability and biodiversity while taking regular carbon-expensive flights to conferences?

So let’s minimise the ado and have a look at some pros and cons from this new format.

Pre-Recorded Talks

Pros: Conferences as large as BES are rammed full of different sessions. Often there are two fascinating talks at the exact same time. No chance of making both. The vast majority of talks for BES this eyar were pre-recorded and available on demand. This made everything a lot more relaxed, seeing as you only ever needed to be present at one session at a time. It means there’s no more extensive planning required to ensure you see all your favorite talks, and it makes the days a lot more relaxing. Lastly, being able to rewind if you zone out a bit is a blessing, and the ability of speakers to now insert subtitles makes the talks far more accessible.

Cons: OH MY GOD WHY IS PRE-RECORDING A TALK MORE STRESSFUL THAN GIVING IT LIVE. It’s like all your flaws and speech hiccups come to light in one horrifying recording session. On a more serious note, going forward there needs to be a notification system letting people know when their talk has been commented on, or when a comment they’ve made has been responded to. The fact that many could now read from a script while recording a talk (or giving it live) reduced the dynamism of many talks, however I’m hoping that more workshops and help guides will spring up to help out here.

Highlights: My favourite talks by far (and so far, apologies to those whose talks I haven’t made it to yet) were by Beth Smith (on potential problems with Livestock Guarding Dogs – check it out below) and Tanja Petersen (urban biodiversity – she basically presented her whole thesis).

Online Workshops

Pros: I’m no stranger to webinars, so I was quite familiar with some of the problems inherent in any sort of online workshop. Which is why anyone interested should definitely check out Dr. Jamie Gallagher‘s work. Jamie ran a fantastic seminar on digital science communication, which was loaded with tips on how to run successful workshops and communicate well via Zoom. As an added bonus, some workshops can be quite confronting for the more introverted, and having the opportunity to still experience the discussion and learn from it while simultaneously being able to switch off the camera and slide into anonymity must have been a relief for a lot of people.

Cons: The workshops were the one event that were all on simultaneously, so there was no chance to see two at once. And due to some technical difficulties, it seems that not all will be available online afterwards. For those of us who do enjoy the interaction of a workshop, it can also be a bit tricky to get to know people and network in a Zoom breakout room, but it’s a format more of us are growing accustomed to each day.

Highlights: Obviously running a workshop with my colleagues Bert van der Veen, Jenni Niku and Bob O’Hara was a big thrill. We prepared for this thing for a month or two, and having 300 people over two days show up and give us some great feedback was very rewarding. I also got Bob (my supervisor and a stats legend) to call me ‘Philbert the Dinosaur’ live. Memorable.

Social Media

Pros: Every year the Twitter banter at BES is magnificent, and this year took it to a whole new level. Honestly it was hard to keep up-to-date. I’ll be honest, there weren’t fantastic search functions for the on-demand talks, so Twitter was one of the best ways to find interesting talks and ‘meet’ people.

Cons: Naturally not everyone is on Twitter, and the chat function on the BES website was no MSN messenger (if you don’t get that reference don’t worry it means you’re an overachiever academically). If people felt they missed out this year and want to get involved, I’d check out the workshop that Steph Januchowski-Hartley, Dani Rabaiotti and Mike Whitefield‘s awesome workshop on social media for scientists. It’ll be publicly available for everyone soon!

Other Thoughts

  • Xuemei Bai gave a fascinating talk on the very first day concerning ecology and biodiversity in cities. Australian broadband was embarrassing as always and chopped the talk up a bit, so I’m looking forward to revisiting this next week.
  • Giving the GLLVM workshop was a highlight, but setting up a very childish Twitter game and getting people to spot my mispronunciations of Linear Latent Variable was also a lot of fun.
  • Jens Svenning‘s talk on megafauna in Europe during the Rewilding thematic session covered an always-fascinating topic – how much megafauna can we get away with bringing back to Europe? I love this topic, and will be hopefully interviewing Jens in the New Year.

As a final thought, this conference was WAY more exhausting than I thought it would be. Granted, I was doing house viewings during the week and trying to keep the blog running, but this experience confirmed that it’s not the constant networking and alcohol that drives us towards the brink of sanity during these conferences (see Tanya Styrdom’s comic take below).

Check out more of Tanya’s comics at this link

To circle back to where we started, this experience was invaluable. I don’t think that physical conferences will ever be completely erased, but this shows that scientists can easily replace a proportion of their annual meetings with virtual experiences.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is off on holidays and wishes you all a happy Christmas. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

Title Image Credit: British Ecological Society

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