Are online conferences more inclusive?

Once again, we are entering the summer conference season and, once again, most conferences are taking place in virtual format due to the ongoing travel restrictions and uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Much has in fact already been written about how to make conferences more inclusive, both in person and virtually. So what aspects should be considered as a measure of inclusivity?

Cost

Firstly – cost. The ugly truth is that expensive conference fees, coupled with transport and accommodation costs, often effectively prohibit people from attending meetings due to their location. Travel grants and awards can help to combat this, but are not as much of an equaliser as a fully online format.

Travel

Secondly – even for those who can afford it, travelling long distances is not always possible or desirable. This is especially true for people with family to look after, with teaching obligations, or for people with certain disabilities, for whom the stress is not worth the effort.

Time

Not everyone can afford the luxury of going away for 1-2 weeks. Yet an online format is typically difficult to be fully inclusive in terms of time zones. As an example, next week from 28th June until the 2nd July, the European Astronomical Society (EAS) 2021 meeting takes place; scheduled from 9am to 6pm CEST, which makes sense for a majority European attendance. However, the International Cosmic Ray Conference (ICRC) 2021 from 12th – 23rd July has to cater for a truly international attendance. This is scheduled from 12pm to 7:30pm CEST — which is 7pm to 2:30am in Tokyo and 3am to 10:30 am in Los Angeles. Good luck to colleagues further afield still, in Australia and Hawaii!
In these cases, the online format makes scheduling “live discussions” in which all can participate at a reasonable time, effectively impossible. Such is life when living on a rotating Earth.

Recordings

For the ICRC this year, all contributions (except for plenary talks) have to be recorded and uploaded in advance of the conference. Although it may seem like a pain – one more thing to prepare – in my opinion this is helpful for many people for the following reasons:

1) it enables people to watch talks at a suitable time for them;
2) the talk can be recorded as many times as the presenter likes, thereby getting rid of some nerves;
3) fast speakers can be slowed down and slow speakers can be sped up;
4) parts of a talk can be repeated if necessary (or skipped, e.g. if hearing the same introduction for the Nth time).

The major disadvantage being, of course, that the audience can be much reduced, as fewer people will proactively watch as many talks as they would in person.

Language

English is the de facto language of science in general and international conferences in particular. As a native speaker, I’m fully aware that I have an unfair advantage here. (Also, that my natural writing style is deemed “difficult to read”…)
Online formats can provide non-native speakers of English with more time and flexibility; in preparing their talks; in formulating questions before asking these live or writing and posting online; and in assimilating and understanding information before responding.
Actually, that list applies to everyone, regardless of their native language!

Invisible barriers

There are likely several further, invisible barriers that I have not mentioned so far. These are the less obvious aspects, that you won’t know someone is affected by unless they tell you. For example, at the EAS 2021, a friend is helping to organise this special session on Welfare and Mental Health in Astronomy Research which will no doubt spark valuable discussion; whilst the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) as part of its “Astrodiversity” project has issued a set of guidelines for colour blind friendly publications.

As scientists, it is important to keep learning from each other, and try to make science in general (and astrophysics in particular) a welcoming environment that supports all people involved.
After all, E = mc2 regardless of our differences.

#BlackLivesMatter – June 10th 2020

Today, 10th June 2020, physicists have called for a Strike for Black Lives. Why? This is not only to add support to the fight against racism and violent discrimination, but also a chance for us to have some uncomfortable conversations. Black people have been and continue to be severely under-represented in academia. We can’t rewrite history, but we can change its course – so why does the percentage of black people in academia remain so low?

Why are there so few black physicists?

Recently I read this article which identified five main influences, that can be roughly categorised as representation (a sense of belonging / self-perception) and support (both academic and personal). In other words, we are discouraged if there are no examples of “people like me”. The absence of coloured physicists is striking, and something I’ve mused upon to colleagues on a few occasions. The ratio is much more biased than in wider society. At several meetings, conferences and work places there is almost always only one black academic. Professionally, I’ve encountered perhaps ~7 people; no more than 10. If you are a black person in academia – you are not alone.

How can we help?

What can we do to improve the situation, without showing favouritism or reducing people to the “token black employee”? Here are a few thoughts.
(Please note – opinions expressed are entirely my own. If I’ve unintentionally offended anyone, or if you have other ideas 🙂 , do not hesitate to let me know)

  • Ensure that we visibly include historical examples of black scientists in outreach and education.
    There is a list of African American scientists on Wikipedia and we would do well to remember and advertise the achievements of Edward Bouchet , George Carruthers , James Harris , Katherine Johnson , Willie Moore , Arthur Walker and others. (and I’m ashamed to learn some of those names for the first time today)
  • Encourage black students and colleagues to join organisations such as https://www.nsbp.org/ not to form “cliques” or promote division, but as a source of support.
  • Advertise opportunities, such as the Bell-Burnell graduate fund that can support people from under-represented backgrounds.
  • Encourage black colleagues to give talks and visibly share their work, collaborate with them and cite them! (Should go without saying.)
  • Give students examples of active black researchers – this could be you too. (Famous examples include Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Neil de Grasse Tyson)

This next one is a bit astronomy specific, but we can give more thought to the cultures we refer to in historical astronomy. We can do more to include not only Asian and Middle-Eastern, but also African, Native American and Aboriginal Australian alongside historical European Astronomy.
(A few minutes on google today led me to the work of Thebe Medupe on traditional African Astronomy and of Duane Hamacher on Aboriginal Australian Astronomy. )

Finally, whilst not being true for all, black people and under-represented groups are facing an uphill battle and may be more reluctant to ask for help – which means we should be all the more willing to offer it.

We are all guilty of unconscious bias; yes, even under-represented groups will also have their own internalised biases. The first step to improvement is becoming more aware of our biases and ways to combat it.