Members of the Bernoulli Society’s Young Researchers Committee — Imma Curato, Sandro Gallo and Zhenhua Lin — interviewed Leif Döring, who acted as chair of the organizing committee of the first Bernoulli–IMS One World Symposium, which took place online August 24–28, replacing the World Congress in Seoul, which is now rescheduled to July 19–23, 2021. Leif is a full professor in the Institute of Mathematics at the University of Mannheim in Germany. This interview, and a report of the meeting, appeared in the November 2020 issue of Bernoulli News: http://www.bernoullisociety.org/files/BernoulliNewsNovember2020.pdf. Thanks to BN editor Manuele Leonelli for permission to reprint it here, slightly condensed.
What were the main goals of the first virtual Bernoulli–IMS One World Symposium?
Leif Döring: From the very beginning, there were two major goals: to open the virtual scene for young researchers and to move towards changing the travel attitude in our research community. Most virtual seminars that appeared in 2020 cover almost exclusively well-known senior speakers (including the One World Probability Seminar that I am involved in). Young researchers can now attend many talks, which is nice, but have little space to present their own results. We thought it was important to set up a large event in which as many people as possible could present and discuss their recent work. Additionally, 2020 seemed to be the right year for major improvements towards a more ecological research world. We have been discussing with many people how to reduce our carbon footprint by making parts of our meetings virtual, but we never started. A big advantage of this special year seems to be that people are very forgiving, so with the symposium we tried to do several steps at once. We hoped to introduce new virtual features and prove that large scale meetings can work without any travel.
Give us a quick overview of the positive and negative outcomes of the Symposium.
Like many other virtual activities this year, the symposium was set up without much preparation and without any past experience. This makes me feel less negative about parts that went less well than others. The main lesson we – and other organizers of virtual conferences – learned this year is that the online environment of a virtual conference creates different dynamics. Participants are more selective. A direct translation of regular conferences to the virtual world does not work particularly well. Regular conferences seem to profit strongly from group effects which are absent in the virtual setting. In the virtual world it is more important to involve participants actively, and it is harder to have strong participation in plenary events. That being said, the most positive outcome were the pre-recorded talks with live-discussions. Roughly 600 participants registered to present a talk, and almost all managed to produce a 10-minute video themselves, which were of a very high standard. In inverted-classroom style, videos were made accessible to all participants a week before the symposium, and were discussed in 110 live sessions during the symposium week. Many live discussions went extremely well, with some having 50 participants discussing 3–8 talks; the average was about 20 participants. I would also count the new researcher events as being very successful. Events of that kind should be continued in the future in a virtual format to give young researchers without a travel budget access to insider information. On the negative side, I should mention some more experimental features that we tried. “Ask Me Anything” sessions, where a senior researcher offered 30 minutes of their time to all interested young researchers for a virtual discussion, were not very well attended. This was a surprise as such meetings are hard to have during regular conferences. It also took some time until the coffee gardens (places for social interactions during coffee breaks) were frequented more. We need to carefully explain and communicate all new features!
Did the 2020 Online World Symposium establish a new paradigm for big meetings? Is the virtual format preferable? And do you think online events could completely substitute in-person events?
There is no doubt that most of us researchers like to travel, and would prefer to continue as we are used to. In a perfect world I would also rather attend a conference in person, not least for the social aspects, but this is unfortunately not the world we live in. Climate change forces us all to rethink our actions, and for our community this means drastically changing our travel habits. Do we have a choice of whether to move more towards virtual events or not? Not in my view.
I do believe that small, specialist workshops are still preferable in person, since this is where the real work is done and young researchers get to know their close community in person. The situation is different for big generalist conferences, which I think should always become virtual – except for local meetings where people can travel without flying. The symposium has proven that a large generalist conference can be completely substituted, and in some ways improved, by moving to the virtual world. Since a big meeting is aimed far more towards gaining an overview over different fields than on specific research work with collaborators, the selective nature of virtual events becomes an advantage. We had enthusiastic feedback from many participants concerning the possibility of browsing (some at 1.5× speed) through many pre-recorded talks and then discussing the ones of specific interest with the speaker during the live sessions. With this efficiency, participants can be simultaneously more broad and more specialized with the same investment of time. The symposium was also more inclusive than comparable events as it did not require travel budgets. We saw many participants from developing countries who could not afford long-distance travel. Since big meetings aim at gathering the community, an increase of inclusivity is a big plus.
We have a unique opportunity to use the situation in 2020–21 to take a big step towards a more sustainable research world. I am happy the symposium was one example among many others that proved that more ecological substitutes can really work!
Does attending online conferences bring a better work-life balance? On the one hand, many more people are able to attend the event, but on the other it is possible that they are less able to dedicate themselves fully to it (due to being at home, family, teaching duties…)
This year we are facing two effects at once: the rise of virtual activities and the COVID pandemic. The pandemic forces us to spend far too much time in video calls, and for many has also created delicate situations at home. This naturally decreases the desire to spend more time online in virtual seminars and conferences. It will be interesting to see the reaction to virtual conferences in regular times, when we are not so tired of online activities.
It will also take some time for the community to accept that a virtual conference is a conference and as such should be treated as a full-time commitment. I had a chat in the coffee gardens with a postdoc who claimed the symposium was the most useful conference he had attended, both in terms of Mathematics and socializing/networking. Just as for a regular conference, he committed his entire week to the symposium in order to get as much as possible from the symposium (several ask-me-anything sessions, plenty of live discussions and plenary talks, and discussions in the coffee gardens continued by extensive discussions on Zoom). This is something to learn for future virtual events in non-pandemic times: fix the week, go to the office, pretend you are away for a conference. I definitely consider evenings spent at home with family and friends, and no weekends or nights at airports, to be a better work-life balance!
Could you give us some details on the way the event was organized? For instance, how many people were involved in organizing the conference? How much time did the organisation take? And was it less work than organizing a standard in-person event?
Three months before the symposium we started to discuss first ideas, set up a website, and sent out the announcement. Things moved very fast, and we were still clarifying the main ideas in the weeks running up to the event. The organisation team consisted of Siva Athreya, Andreas Kyprianou, Jean-Christophe Mourrat, Christian Robert, and myself. Since there was not enough time to involve further committees, all decisions were taken by ourselves and the presidents of the Bernoulli Society (Claudia Klüppelberg) and IMS (Susan Murphy). The lack of time forced us to be extremely efficient regarding discussions and decisions, and a topic rarely took more than a day from first idea to decision. This is very unusual but is the only way to organize a major conference in so little time.
I found the organisation of virtual activities to be far simpler than is typical for in-person events. The focus of a virtual event lies almost entirely on the scientific content, and much of the work required by a regular event – coffee breaks, conference dinner, hotels for participants, venues, etc – is non-existent. I estimate that the entire organisation of the symposium would have taken 10 weeks for one person working full-time. Since this was the first edition it was hard to delegate work; for future events the work could be significantly optimized. It is crucial to use good tools for registration, but all are available for free. A professional partner could be involved to reduce the workload, but in my eyes the benefits do not justify the costs. By not involving a professional partner we were able to run the symposium completely free of charge for everyone, a goal we set ourselves at the outset in order to be as inclusive as possible.
Do you have any advice for the organizers of an online conference in the future?
Yes. Don’t try to mimic a regular conference, be more interactive: the inverted-classroom style talks seem to be a step in the right direction. All new features must be explained well, otherwise people won’t take advantage of them. It is also important to explain to participants how they can get the most out of the conference. In particular, young researchers might be encouraged to rethink how to organize their time in an optimal way. A virtual conference should be seen as a legitimate conference, with serious time devoted to all opportunities. On the technical side, be careful when selecting streaming software. Currently Zoom seems a good choice, as it can handle large audiences and is cheap, but there will certainly be alternatives appearing in the next few years.