Dr Vanessa Moss
It’s 11am in your time zone. You’re about to drop into the office of a colleague on the west coast to check in on a project you’re working on together, using data from a lab in Japan. Earlier that morning, you assessed the results of your experiments which had run autonomously overnight, and conversed quickly with the AI to adjust some parameters for the next 24 hours. At lunchtime, your research team is getting together for the quarterly virtual cross-country lunch, and today’s theme is local produce, with a small recipe box having turned up on your doorstep two days ago. Later that day, you’ll grab coffee with a co-worker in the Netherlands, the late afternoon sun for you almost seamlessly blending with the morning sun for them. Your last meeting of the day is with your student from South Africa, who sent you an excited message last night about the results from their latest simulation, and you’ll be meeting in virtual reality to examine the model in 3D, joined by the student’s Brazil-based co-supervisor.
Does this sound like a far-fetched sci-fi vision of the future, taking place in the world of Ready Player One? Something distant and unrealistic enough that it will never actually manifest? While technology of today isn’t quite at the stage for the above to play out perfectly, we are actually currently much closer to a globally connected, location-agnostic world than you might think. And despite all the vast and varied negative effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, there has been some good to come from the sudden situation we have found ourselves launched into.
Over the next few years, the bigger question will be how we choose to move forward (or backward) from the disruption of the current times. Can we change the face of academia for the better, relying less on access to funding and travel and resources to level the playing field more than ever before? Can we survive the compounded global crises on all fronts, from environmental to political to financial, and keep science at the forefront of societal progress? And can we separate the negative effects of lockdown from the benefits of increased accessibility, inclusivity and sustainability?
Academic progress has typically been based on the assumption that you will increasingly travel to distant locations for conferences and collaboration, building your network and raising awareness of your science beyond your immediate local scientific community. The most prestigious fellowships generally come with substantial travel grants, because to be successful is somehow inextricably linked with travelling around the world despite the known environmental harm caused by excessive academic travel. So many bad experiences over the last year with online conferences, meetings and events have convinced a large majority that the only real solution is to go back to ‘business as usual’, because what really comes close online to an in-person chat over drinks in the pub?
It is unquestionable that the future of academia must do what it can to protect and support its vulnerable EMCR community, who will be the first to feel the brunt of the upcoming budget tensions over the next decade as the fallout from the pandemic sets in. But while it may seem tempting to focus on what is lost in a time of upheaval, it is also worth reflecting both on what is gained and on what possibilities are opened up if we continue to leverage a more connected world.
A common concern in the current times is about the fate of networking for early career scientists if academics travel less and if conferences shift online. A counterpart to this is the broadening of opportunity for the work of an EMCR to be presented on an international stage long before the funds might be available to otherwise support doing so. Virtual gatherings of scientists can be both effective and significantly cheaper, lowering the barrier for entry in an era where privileged access to funding has traditionally played a key role in determining career trajectory. This can mean a junior researcher has the chance to present their work in a national or international forum much earlier than otherwise in their career, dramatically reducing the impact of either funding access or seniority in ability to take part in academic discussion.
The expectation to travel can also be highly exclusionary, for example excluding people with disability, major teaching commitments or caring responsibilities – even considering the positive impact that recent initiatives such as conference child care and improved access support have had. Conversely, online interaction and participation might be much more feasible. Additionally, the significant barriers affecting many countries which do not have access to easy travel in the same way as some nations can be lowered, and we can take steps towards truly global and inclusive scientific discourse thanks to the great leveller that is technology. And while access to technology is still not equal across the world, this technological landscape is dramatically changing at a much faster rate than access to funding for travel.
But how will EMCRs form those critical and meaningful personal connections, both with peers and with senior influencers in their field, if these interactions have always been serendipitous, organic and informal in nature? Perhaps a better question to ask is why the career of an academic should be predicated on such interactions in the first place, considering that many researchers do not necessarily end up having the ‘right’ conversation at the right time in the right place anyway, for various reasons. In fact, a thoughtfully designed online interaction (and yes, there are tools for this beyond a Zoom Breakout room!) can be much more effective in connecting people with each other than relying on sporadic and random hallway conversations.
And when the formation of your academic network depends less on the physical walls in which you exist, there is suddenly more potential for meaningful global collaboration in a way that was never realised before (even though technology changed the situation a while ago). Aside from the impact that mixed reality technologies will have in this space over the next few years, even a simple data-driven algorithm for suggesting connections can have a huge impact on the lasting nature of otherwise chaotically formed networks. Those who embrace and take advantage of the new digital world will undoubtedly be well-placed in an uncertain future where the luxury of travel may no longer be a choice due to environmental, or more likely, economic restrictions.
So challenge yourself to make the most of these unusual times, and use the newfound connectedness of the world to boost your academic network in ways that were never possible before. Leverage technology to your advantage and be willing to try new tools which take you beyond the standard video call, if they suit the purpose. Instead of lamenting what was lost or conflating the challenges of a pandemic with the evolution of how we work, consider what might be gained by committing wholeheartedly to a new normal that is better both for you, and for all of those who were invisible in their exclusion from our old normal.
The future of meetings is coming at high speed towards us, whether we are prepared or not, and the more we can do already to futureproof academia and ensure that the next generation of scientists can leverage these changes, the better chance we have of seeing science prosper in the years to come.
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