Now the academic year has come to an end, it is possible to start to reflect on the year past and what next year might, and I emphasise might, look like. This year has not been as full of Covid-stresses as the last couple, thank goodness, but the feeling of burn out across academia still feels palpable, and my own feelings are no exception. I have no confidence the UK has seen the back of the pandemic, but at least for now it seems most people are willing to relax their vigilance about infection. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other bugs around, as a recent prostrating stomach upset reminded me. The ONS has been reporting extremely large numbers of Covid infections, although it is possible this wave has now peaked (but I still wear a mask in shops and on public transport).
It is starting to be possible to imagine a ‘normal’ existence again. The trouble is, knowing what the new normal is, or what one wants it to be. It isn’t obvious to me how to balance travelling to meetings in person, to get together with people with whom one has been working with for much of the last two years via Zoom, versus the advantages of staying stuck at the desk staring endlessly into a screen and ostensibly getting more work done. However, there is nothing like a heatwave to remind us (if not all politicians around the world) that spending carbon on travel should be carefully ‘costed’, quite apart from time taken, even if it’s only a train to London, which (for me) only adds up to less than an hour on the actual train.
How much work is productively done in the margins of a meeting, over a coffee break for instance, when one can quietly try out new ideas or strategies, find allies to demolish (figuratively) the nay-sayers or merely let off steam about long-winded committee members? The reality is these sideline conversation can be extremely helpful, although obviously not always. I think the two years without most of these conversations being feasible has definitely not helped community dynamics, at least in some communities. That is a clear argument for it being worth travelling to get to that meeting, to meet people ‘in the flesh’ and to have these less organised conversations.
Counter to that is the effort it takes to get to a meeting on the other side of the country for an hour or two’s meeting. Not so long ago I had to give a presentation to a committee (of which I was not a member), with a time slot of 45 minutes allotted for both presentation and discussion. Being used to Zoom, I chose not to go up to London (not that far away in reality, albeit there’s additional travel time at each end to add in in terms of one’s diary), and then regretted it. After my talk, the single panel on my screen devoted to the eight or so people who were physically present in the meeting room meant they were but mere pinpricks on my screen (there were others on Zoom who were much bigger!). I couldn’t see who was who at all clearly – no handy nametag to glance at underneath their Zoom faces – and audio wasn’t entirely brilliant, even though the room was meant to be well-adapted to handle this. Nor could I judge how my presentation was received as I gave it, since all I could really see were my own slides. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone.
In quick succession, and in the identical room, I attended another meeting through the screen, but this time there were fewer committee members in the room, and I knew who they were, as a committee member myself. The chair was in the room and managed to keep a good grasp of who had their hands raised both electronically and physically, and the discussion felt very engaged and constructive. And soon after that, at a third meeting of another committee (same room), I was in the room along with a handful of others, but the chair was present virtually, as were a number of other committee members. This, to my mind, was the least satisfactory hybrid arrangement of all, because the chair – in just the same way as I had found when I had done my own presentation at the first meeting – simply couldn’t see who was in the room, nor notice if they’d put a hand up, whereas they could easily spot the Zoom hands and bring them into the debate.
For some meetings, hybrid works absolutely fine, but my experience with these three variants in quick succession tells me that there are many situations in which they are far from ideal. I think that tells me that, as far as possible, I will attempt to attend meetings in person unless the meeting is set up to be entirely Zoom and not the mix and match of hybrid. Zoom has been a wonderful interim measure during the dark pandemic days. For some meeting, with few people and those ones you know well, they will continue to serve well, but for tricky decision-making meetings, for meetings with more present than fit easily on a single screen (say eight people), I think not.
This of course only deals with the question of ‘local’ meetings. For those who are planning that trip to a conference in some exotic location, the calculations will be entirely different. I do hope people are working out their carbon budgets carefully, given the way the world is warming. Surely, we should all be carefully assessing what could be extremely enjoyable, but could as well be done remotely from a scientific point of view? That is, assuming conference organisers make this viable. ECRs would, of course, derive significant benefit from mixing with the big names in their field, building contacts and learning from experienced voices. However, since some of these (as was happening pre-pandemic often enough) might just drop in briefly for their own talk and, perhaps, a dinner with friends, it may be that invited speakers should be encouraged to give their presentations remotely since in reality they are not making themselves available to newcomers. I know some of my colleagues would take grave exception to such a recommendation, but we can’t go on ignoring the melting world.
The trouble with this solution is that it leaves the ECRs talking to themselves – no bad thing of course; and it can be brilliant for them – and unable to penetrate senior networks. I don’t know what the answer to this. I am sure it is a question we should be thinking about carefully before we blithely return to jet-setting conferences, from which the benefits are sometimes unclear.