Group and Institutional Benefits of In-Person Attendance at Conferences
In addition to individual benefits, non-governmental organizations (NGO) can also garner much-needed support by presenting and attending conferences. Online, non-profit charities and NGOs compete against a vast array of other organizations. It can be difficult to gather supporters through the daily background noise of online information. Conferences are an unequivocal means to meet people crucial to furthering organizations. In-person representation makes a greater impression on potential supporters, similar to the effects for individual attendees previously discussed. Increased support from conference attendees leads to increased online chatter, which can have exponential results. More support means more funding and increased real-world impacts made by NGOs.
Conferences also allow for exchanges across universities. Multi-university collaborations can be difficult, but conferences provide the interface for this to transpire. Combining resources and experiences can not only further specific research efforts, but also science in general. Examples of such fruitful collaborations from IMCCs include Parsons et al. (2014), Cigliano et al. (2015b), Hind et al. (2015), and Cigliano et al. (2016). Emails are not always effective for starting collaborations, and researching potential universities for partnerships takes time. Being in the same place as representatives from other universities accelerates the process and leads to real results. New research stations and enterprises have been established by multiple universities pooling resources as a result of meeting at conferences.
For certain conferences, registration fees help to financially support other initiatives of non-profits. Conferences can be a fundraiser for projects and grants that provide direct backing for environmental issues and endeavors. For example, funds collected at IMCCs help support marine conservation communication initiatives and policy projects of the SCB Marine Section, such as the Save the Vaquita campaign. Funds may also support other branches of an organization. For example, some registration fees received at a large international conference may be used to support research projects in underrepresented regions, as is done with some of the fees collected at IMCCs by the SCB Marine Section. These regions may be comprised of developing countries with limited resources but ample biodiversity. The SCB Marine Section Conservation Research Small Grants program, for example, is made possible through registration fees collected at IMCCs.
Overcoming the Limitations of In-Person Attendance at Conferences
Many science conferences, especially those concerning environmental issues, are increasingly taking steps to monitor (Hischier and Hilty, 2002) and counterbalance the environmental impacts of conference travel (Parsons, 2015). Moreover, agencies (such as the US Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/p2/green-meetings) and industry (e.g., Doubledutch, 2014) even have websites offering advice for those wanting to reduce the impacts of their meetings. IMCCs, for instance, follow the Sustainable Event Policy of the SCB (https://conbio.org/conferences/about-scb-meetings/scb-sustainable-event-policy).
Additionally, conferences are now frequently offering or mandating the collection of required or optional carbon offset fees to help ameliorate the negative environmental effects of conference travel. Delegates to IMCC4 paid a compulsory offset fee as part of a policy adopted by the meeting organizers to bring the conference into alignment with the Paris Agreement (http://conbio.org/mini-sites/imcc-2016/about/carbon-offsetting/). Carbon offset fees fund environmental projects, such as native tree planting and wildlife conservation.
Although technology has advanced to levels once thought of as unattainable, these tools should supplement conferences, not replace face-to-face interactions. Fraser et al. (2017) rightly conclude that global virtual conferencing is possible for fields like conservation biology. These have been investigated by IMCC delegates in discussion sessions at OceansOnline, an affiliate conference of IMCC4, with a result of organizers subsequently looking to offer telepresence as an option for the forthcoming 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (Thaler, 2017). Yet, Fraser et al. (2017), while additionally noting the virtual approach’s susceptibility to technical difficulties, are also among the scientists that cannot get past the social limitations virtual conferences impose. Psychology, management, and communications studies have shown that information exchange, collaboration, and networking multiply during face-to-face meetings (Duffy and McEuen, 2010). Effective collaborations require understanding the nuances of collaborators—nuances that cannot be perceived virtually. Physically gathering people with different backgrounds and expertise may be difficult on a regular basis, but large conferences allow for this to happen.
Suggestions that a number of regional meetings could replace global meetings, providing the same face-to-face benefits while reducing travel-associated carbon emissions (Smythe, 2010), may well be appropriate in some cases. However, history has shown that regional conferences provide a different face-to-face knowledge sharing experience to global meetings, capture few non-regional issues, and lack the scope to address global problems like those typical of marine conservation (Craggs and Mahony, 2014). For large-scale environmental efforts to be successful, multidisciplinary endeavors and collaborations across regions are crucial.
Recent thinking associated with delegate carbon footprints is, anyway, beginning to ask whether groups like scientists are becoming a bit over-pious with refusals to travel. Calls, have instead been made for individuals and groups to perform a “net-benefit test” when making travel decisions (Favaro, 2017). In the case of attending an IMCC, this would mean them asking, “Is there a reasonable chance that by attending this conference I will be able to produce, directly or indirectly, a net benefit for conservation?” (Dr. Brett Favaro, personal communication). If their non-attendance is impeding career-advancing opportunities and important knowledge sharing, they may be slowing the development and advance of the marine conservation discipline to the detriment of ocean health. Accepted norms for scientists should allow the most effective pursuit of goals, such as those for marine conservation. IMCC organizers have already implemented the net-benefit approach by reforming their organizing approach to reduce carbon emissions, running in-situ applied workshops to improve conservation practitioners’ skills, integrating outreach activities in the conference host city (e.g., beach cleanups, marine education activities) as part of the official conference program, and through advancing conservation initiatives as part of scientific sessions. Although conference travel can have negative environmental impacts, the environmental benefits achieved by increased conference participation surely outweigh the travel factor.
Moreover, conference organizers can take steps to reduce their environmental impacts by picking a venue that uses sustainable practices (Draper et al., 2011; Parsons, 2015). Other ways in which the impacts of delegate travel can be offset or minimized include (Parsons, 2015):
• Trying to reuse, reduce, and recycle as much as possible—give delegates travel mugs and distribute water stations and recycling bins throughout the venue.
• Ensuring that food and drink are from as sustainable a source as possible (vegan and local options are best, but if not possible, then vegetarian and local options should be used).
• Having the program online (available to download as a.pdf or an online app). Have delegates order hard copies of programs in advance, to minimize printing costs and paper wastage.
• As noted above, having a carbon offset charge for the entire conference included as part of the conference budget (“opt in” carbon offset structures have a low rate of enrollment, i.e., <10%).
• Conference organizers and delegates uniformly applying the net-benefit test described in this section.
Finally, when hosting a conservation/environmental conference, organizers can make the most of having a large congregation of international conservation/environmental experts—recruit volunteers from attendees to participate in beach clean-ups, tree plantings, and similar activities; host advisory meetings and capacity building/training workshops with local grassroots environmental groups; do educational visits to local schools, hospitals, and colleges (Parsons, 2015). The educational and practical, real world benefits provided by a conference delegate might have a major and long lasting benefit to the local host community and their environment.