SLATE goes EGU - Ready... set... TYPE!
ESR 2, ESR 4, ESR 5, ESR 6, ESR 9, ESR 10 | @ Sharing Geoscience Online (4-8 May 2020)
Everyone working in academic geoscience, especially in Europe, has the EGU week highlighted in their calendar. Even if not everyone has the luxury to travel to Vienna each year, we all have at least one colleague who is planning to present new work, new results, or new ideas at EGU. When the abstract submission deadline approaches we all feel involved, either directly or indirectly.
When we received the reminder about the upcoming deadline for session proposals in July 2019, it felt quite natural to try to organize a session to celebrate the last EGU of the SLATE project. No session focused specifically on submarine mass movements during EGU 2019, and the SLATE ESRs were scattered all over different sessions. For our last year, we wanted to organize something that could put all the SLATE ESRs and the submarine mass movements community together to present their work. We gathered five SLATE ESRs who were willing to contribute actively to the session’s organization, and with this motivation in mind, we started working on it.
First thing: you have to make sure that nobody else is organizing the same session. In our case, this meant getting in touch with the S4SLIDE community, which gathers many other researchers working on the topic of submarine mass movements. It took only one email to Lorena Moscardelli, the S4SLIDE chair, to get her full support for the initiative, including five travel grants for early career scientists to attend our session. We could not have had a better or more motivating start.
Everything from there on felt quite spontaneous: shape the session in a way that everyone working in the field could be involved, find a catchy session name, write the proposal, submit it. The session got accepted. We promoted it on our Twitter page (@itnSLATE ), making sure to be annoying enough that everyone working on submarine landslides knew about it. Eventually we received enough abstracts to have an oral and a poster session. Session time: late afternoon on Friday… Not ideal. Some hard negotiation with other conveners and the organizers later, the new session time: Monday afternoon. We could not have asked for a better outcome.
Then, the unexpected happened. Since everyone realized the COVID-19 pandemic was a serious threat, it was clear that it would somehow affect the conference week in Vienna. This bad feeling was confirmed by the end of March: “No EGU General Assembly in 2020, see you in 2021. BUT…we will try something different. This year, the EGU will be an online event, free and open to everyone”.
Honestly, the initial expectations were not so high, but as new details about the online conference were revealed, the enthusiasm started to increase. By mid April, it was clear that we were going to be pioneers of something that could represent a big innovation not only for EGU, but for the entire geoscience community: a virtual conference where thousands of people could talk about science. A drastic reduction in carbon emissions and no more worring about travel budgets. A potential opportunity to reach a larger number of scientists, and a chance to share our presentations beyond the geo-nerds who attend EGU in-person. In other words, there was potential for a scientific communication and outreach revolution.
We needed to make sure that the authors in our session were as motivated as we were. We got in touch with them and explained the importance of being part of such an exciting experiment. In the end, 12 out of the 20 original presenters uploaded their presentation materials (“displays”), and discussed their research on a live chat with more than 120 attendees. The level of engagement was unexpected: a two hour long active discussion, a multitude of specific and open questions, debates. Everyone could notice a considerably more dynamic environment than a regular oral session.
There is no doubt that this forced EGU online edition has been an eye-opener and a potential game-changer for future conferences. The benefits of such a format are obvious, as are the limitations and aspects which could be substantially improved given more organization time. The pros are an answer to years of discussion on how to make this conference more open, international and sustainable. In the last few years we have all seen a multitude of geoscientists travelling the whole continent by train, posting their adventures during their journey on social media. The 2020 edition showed that it is possible, and perhaps more realistic than previously thought, to attend the conference from home. Can you motivate people who are not geoscientists to travel to Vienna, pay for their participation, just to follow the few sessions which are understandable to a non-expert audience? Difficult. However, if you can access science in the comfort of your home, more ordinary people can and will tune in, and scientists will find a wider audience to discuss their discoveries with.
There were also limitations. The most obvious drawback is the lack of in-person interaction. As many of us experience during a regular EGU, there is no better networking than walking around posters, holding a beer and having informal conversations. As this is our natural way to act. Additionally, as everyone can attend from home, the time zones become more problematic and might exclude scientists from sessions they wish to attend. Finally, it requires stable internet access that not everyone has access to.
What if future editions allow authors to present through sharing screens online and explaining their research by talking, instead of writing? How about answering questions by voice, as we have seen in many Instagram or YouTube videos during this quarantine period? What if there was the possibility to create private chat or video-call rooms, where a private interaction between people is possible? Considering the huge online traffic of the online event, this was clearly not possible to set up in little more than a month. Nevertheless, does it sound so unrealistic to do in a one-year timeframe? Finally: is it sustainable to set up such a virtual event free of charge or at a very accessible cost?
There are many issues and challenge to address, but none of them seem impossible to overcome. The EGU Sharing Geoscience Online have shown an effective alternative to gather together thousands of scientists without making them travel, thanks to the creativity and the hard work of the organizers. It let us believe we saw the (much needed) future of conferences.
Is the future already here, or will we see each other in Vienna next year?
The EGU Session NH5.6 – Subaqueous mass movements: triggers, dynamics and hazards conveners.
I presented an example of using seismic diffraction imaging to better image the internal structure of submarine landslide deposits. Several SLATE members were involved in the acquisition of this data during the INSIGHT (Legs 1 and 2) cruises, particularly PIs Roger Urgeles and Eulàlia Gràcia.
As I had no idea what to expect from the new online format, I simply uploaded the slides that I would have presented in Vienna. During the live-chat I introduced the presentation with a few sentences, the audience spent three minutes reading the slides and then five minutes of text-based discussion followed. The discussion was a little frantic – an oral presentation is nerve-wracking, but you never have to respond to several questions simultaneously! In hindsight I would have prepared fewer slides or an extended poster, similar to the existing PICO format at EGU. But I do think the informal chat allowed people to ask questions which they might not have asked during an oral presentation, and there was some good discussion and good points raised for all the presentations.
“One of the most interesting and stressful experiences – and I was just reading the chat!”
I was not planning on joining the EGU General Assembly this year, as it was scheduled right in the middle of my secondment in Southampton. Well, plans change and I got the opportunity to follow this year’s conference after all. In particular, it allowed me to join the great session convened by Davide (ESR 6), Shray (ESR 4), Kate (ESR 5), Maarten (ESR 10) and William (ESR 12) – Subaqueous mass movements: triggers, dynamics and hazards. Looking back, I do not know if it was the best or most stressful experience ever 😀 It was amazing that we could chat – quite literally, in a chat portal – about ongoing science, ideas and controversies. I have to admit, however, following the ongoing discussion was also sometimes challenging – my highest respect to all the presenters and conveners! I think as a whole it was a great opportunity to be able to discuss science. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to the next conference – hopefully back in Vienna.