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Response to EAS Council’s reply

27 June 2022

The vast majority of EAS sustainability advisory committee members have stepped down in protest against the inaction and obstruction by EAS Council with regards to developing the EAS Annual Meeting to an inclusive and sustainable meeting. After about 1.5 years of discussing “behind the scenes” – and not having reached a single tangible result of actual emission reductions for future meetings – we felt compelled to go public with our frustration at the Council’s inaction. The Council responded in the same issue of Nature Astronomy. Their response, however, contains a number of inaccuracies that we wish to address:

“we […] have engaged extensively with them on the matter”

While there has been some degree of communication, the Council has, on several occasions, failed to respond to our queries and concerns, or done so after a long delay. While they have stated that our input was appreciated, they have not actually engaged with us openly and proactively, by keeping us (and the membership at large) from participating in the design of the meeting or any preliminary discussions.

“When we consulted our membership there was an overwhelming preference for a face-to-face meeting this year, with just one in six people indicating that they would prefer virtual attendance if we were able to offer a hybrid EAS 2022.”

It is very problematic when survey results, which have not been published but are partly available to us, are reported in a distorted way. The question that EAS posed in the survey was “In the future beyond EAS2022, assuming the pandemic induced restrictions become unnecessary, would you prefer the EAS meetings to take place…” and offered the options “In person”, “Virtually”, and “Not sure”. The survey did not address the question whether people would like to participate remotely at a hybrid conference. It asked whether the meeting should take place fully online or fully in-person and it did not ask about hybrid options, nor did it explore the concept that different formats are suitable for different goals and purposes. Nevertheless, 20.8% of all respondents, which is significantly more than “one in six”, answered that they preferred virtual meetings and another 24.8% responded “Not sure”. Only slightly more than half (54.8%) responded “In person”. By claiming that there was an “overwhelming preference for a face-to-face meeting”, EAS Council wilfully distorts the results of the survey.

Assuming that the hybrid format is designed and executed effectively following contemporary best practice, we are convinced that the majority of our community would not be opposed to having a virtual attendance option at an in-person meeting. We also note that best practice for online and hybrid interaction is evolving rapidly, and that many experiences to date are commonly not reflective of best practice or of what is possible in these new formats. Despite the relevance of the EAS meeting format to future sustainable practices, the EAS sustainability committee was not allowed to contribute to the post-meeting and community survey design, as stated above. We also notice that the number of responses in this survey is very small, in comparison with the total number of EAS members, which recently exceeded 4500. The reliability of its results is therefore rather doubtful.

The relevant result of the EAS 2021 conference survey as shared on 27 Jan 2022 with the sustainability advisor committee, is shown below.

“After over two years of online-only meetings we wanted to provide the opportunity to students and early career researchers, the group most disadvantaged by the lack of in-person meetings, to network with others, to showcase their work, and to establish new connections. One third of the more than 1,600 registrants at the meeting are students, a cohort who are vital to the future of European astronomy.”

Early career researchers (ECR) often do not have the means to travel to a very expensive conference. They would be most helped with a state-of-the-art hybrid (or online) meeting at an affordable rate. The fact that the online version of the EAS meeting in 2020 and in 2021 had significantly more participants (1777 and 2464, respectively; numbers from our own research and the EAS newsletter #14, respectively) than the EWASS 2019 meeting in Lyon (1240) speaks for itself. The EAS 2022 annual meeting has seen a very large number of physical attendees, too (1700, according to the EAS newsletter #17); it is unclear, though, if this is a one-time effect due to it being the first physical meeting after three years. Also, the participation rate has still dropped by over 30% relative to 2021. We note that there are an additional 300 online watchers for the 2022 meeting, but we don’t count them as participants since they are not allowed to fully participate in the meeting.

Several works showed that people who are most keen to travel are in fact senior astronomers. Stevens et al. 2020 have shown that senior researchers travel about ten times as much as Ph.D. students. And a survey following the on-line meeting IR 2020 showed that it was mostly senior members of the community who had troubles with networking at the on-line meeting. On the other hand, according to the same survey, a surprisingly large number of junior researchers found that the networking possibilities on-line were even better than in legacy meetings. 

However, even without considering the above-mentioned results, we believe that offering a hybrid option would not damage young people – on the contrary, it would help them.

In addition, it is the voice of the ECR community that must be central in discussions about what is best for them, and it is already clear that prioritising inclusivity and sustainability is a key motivating factor for ECRs when they look to the future (e.g. Kohler et al 2022). 

“Providing a fully hybrid meeting would add more than €70,000 to the cost of the meeting for equipment rental and technical support, which we judged to be more than we could afford.”

The EAS Council have historically used the conference organising company KUONI, whose quotes are exorbitant compared with the services or technology provided. There are alternative state-of-the-art solutions that could have been used for a hybrid meeting of this magnitude, at a fraction of the quoted price. The Council would have been aware of these solutions, had they chosen to engage with us for the organisation of the meeting. 

The Council has not been transparent about the costs of the EAS2021 meeting, even in their annual report at the General Assembly or when actively asked by members. The costs can be reconstructed, however: At the EAS 2021 meeting, a total of 2464 people participated. Assuming, conservatively, that 464 people did not pay at all, and that all the rest paid only the member fee of 150 €, means that the conference had a budget of about 300 k€. The entire scientific organisation of the meeting as well as the local hosting were given “in kind”, i.e. for free, by the conference and session SOCs and Leiden Observatory, respectively. A small profit (35k€) was reported (“expected”) in the (still in draft) minutes of the 2021 General Assembly. This means that the lion’s share of the conference budget for the 2021 online conference must have gone to KUONI, a conservative estimate would be 250 k€ for running this conference (including software licenses, which are typically only a few k€ for state-of-the-art solutions). Again, this is only an estimate as the actual numbers are not public. We advocate that as part of planning for the future of academic conferences, the budgets of large-scale high-cost gatherings should be made transparent and open, in order for the community to be best-placed to judge whether the investment is of best value to them as community members funding it. 

Nevertheless, this estimate is important as it puts the quoted 70 k€ for adding a hybrid component in a very different light: It would only be a small fraction of the entire budget (which presumably is considerably larger for a legacy-style meeting than the online-only costs for 2020 and 2021). However, both the budget for running the (online) conference itself as well as the budget for the hybrid component are extremely excessive by all technical standards and could easily be brought down if Council were willing to openly discuss their conference model with members or their advisory committees and consider alternative options than the traditional, high-cost model.

For example, a decent hybrid setup could be provided by providing the following components per room at very low cost or technical complexity:

  • camera showing presenter + slides (free — presenter simply shows their slides via Zoom on their own laptop)
  • second camera showing audience (use one of the organisers’ laptops — free or alternatively invest a suitable camera technology that becomes a reusable asset)
  • microphone(s) to be able to hear everyone (e.g. a throwable microphone from Catchbox.com, ca. 500 € for a single one or ca. 1000€ with added extra microphones for speaker/moderator)
  • Technical setup: to be done by session organisers with help from LOC / hosting committee (as standard in most conferences); we know from several organisers who would have been happy to help with this had Council just allowed it…
  • video hosting and Zoom licenses: e.g. ca. 1000 € for professional video hosting at Vimeo for one year (free with YouTube), 100 € for one month of Zoom Pro.
  • Professional messaging system, e.g. free versions of Slack or Discord are sufficient
  • stable (not necessarily very fast) WiFi: must be part of a modern conference centre (if not, choose a different conference centre!), alternatively use a wired connection; again this is standard in business facilities these days. Portable low-cost high-speed dongles are also widely available and can be used in the absence of reliable venue internet.

All in all, a decent hybrid setup could have been provided for probably not much more than 15 k€ even for 13 parallel sessions. And these are actually not costs, but investments that can and should of course be re-used in the following months and years. Obviously this is only an indicative and low-complexity attempt that can and needs to be improved in the following years. But we have really no time to lose and must start this now.

“We are at a loss to understand why the signatories to the letter believe that we “did not offer a hybrid option for EAS 2022 — despite our protests — in order to ensure that the meeting attracted sufficient in-person attendees”. This is completely false. Our motivation was to provide the in-person experience requested by members without incurring the unaffordable cost of a fully hybrid mode for 13 parallel sessions.”

It is a strong statement to say that something is false that the EWASS board chair has verbally stated exactly in this way. Also in e-mail messages EWASS board members wrote “we definitely want the participants to come to Valencia” as the Council can easily verify themselves. It was apparently a Council decision to force people to come physically to Valencia if they want to take part in the meeting. In addition, as noted above, the justification of in-person being driven by the request of members is a weak argument, given the lack of support in the community for this and the fact that the survey question was not posed in a way that allowed the community to express their preferences effectively.

“Remote attendance has always been available for the plenary sessions, which are the heart of our annual meetings, to allow those who could not (or prefer not) to travel to Valencia. In addition, this includes access to e-posters and interaction through Slack and the online platform. This comes at a substantially reduced registration fee of €80.“

The on-line attendance that EAS offers to their annual meeting this year is a half-hearted attempt that will not convince anyone of on-line participation as an effective format. Perhaps that is partly the point, and the low participation in this pseudo-hybrid format will later be used as an excuse that there wasn’t enough interest anyway? State-of-the art digital meetings are designed with a “digital first” principle in mind, otherwise remote attendees will only be second class watchers. Effective hybrid interaction is only possible when effort is dedicated to ensuring a good experience for all audiences, rather than focusing solely on the in-person and seeing the online as an afterthought add-on.

The bulk of the scientific discussions at EAS meetings happen in the sessions, as the EAS Council must know. Not granting remote access there means that especially early-career researchers, people with caring duties, disabilities, or people who are actually aware of the climate emergency and refuse to fly, are deprived of the option to take part effectively in this year’s meeting – in contradiction to the self-stated goals of the EAS to foster inclusivity and sustainability.

“We are pleased to confirm that we have found a way for EAS members who are not able to attend the conference in person to have virtual access to our General Assembly.”

It is only through repeated pressure from us and the broader community that the EAS Council have, at long last, conceded on this point, something they fail to acknowledge in their statement.

“This year the Society signed the UN Climate Neutral Now Initiative, making a commitment to substantially reduce our carbon footprint by the end of this decade.”

Again, this signature was only made because of the suggestion and subsequent pressure from the sustainability working group. Again, there is no acknowledgment of our involvement in this crucial decision. However, the signature alone is not sufficient, but must now be followed by active climate action, which the EAS Council has been unfortunately unwilling or unable to take in our interactions with them to date. If there was the need for another example beyond EAS2022, holding a council meeting in Crete (23 May 2022) shows that beyond the scene the Council wants to keep running business as usual and get back to the “old normal” rather than look for ways to adapt in the future..

All in all, if it is not clear to the community today, it will become obvious soon that the current EAS leadership is not able or willing to guide European astronomy to a sustainable and inclusive future. A fundamental shift in either strategy, leadership, or both, is urgently needed to future-proof and improve European astronomy, as well as contributing to the evolution of academic practice on a global scale.

“The Society remains committed to exploring sustainable solutions for future annual meetings in pursuit of that goal.”

The time for exploring was one or two decades ago. Now is the time for urgent action.

Despite many words, what we are missing in EAS Council’s response is an acknowledgement of the crisis we are in and of an ambition to lead our field via tangible impactful actions into a sustainable future!

Leo Burtscher, Lola Balaguer-Núñez, Valentina D’Orazi, Didier Barret, Tobias Beuchert, Emre Dil, Agnieszka Janiuk, Beatriz Mingo, Eloisa Poggio – and with input from Vanessa Moss of “The Future Of Meetings” community of practice

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Our key interest is to preserve our planet, both for our community and humanity at large.

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