When Roland Lindh, Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, organised the Löwdin Lectures symposium on 3–4 December, which this year celebrated the 60th anniversary of Per-Olow Löwdin being appointed Professor of Quantum Chemistry, he definitely did not expect such massive participation. The symposium, which is held every other year, usually has an audience of 40–60 researchers, mostly from the local Uppsala–Stockholm area, plus about a dozen international lecturers.

“But now we have 477 registered attendees, and had to stop accepting additional registrations. They come from five continents – from Japan and Australia to the US West Coast and Latin America. It is absolutely incredible,” says Roland Lindh excitedly over the phone directly from the symposium.

A few days later, he is asked if there are any other advantages to meeting online.

“Yes, in addition to reaching a greater number of people – which is the main purpose of the symposium – we saw side effects such as a reduction in costs and a reduction of our carbon footprint. It also has a democratic aspect in that it is not just ‘rich’ higher education institutions that can participate. A greater number, from professor to master's student, can take part in the symposium.”

Only positives, then?

“Well, the networking activity suffers, of course,” he says and then adds that feedback from the participants has been almost exclusively positive, and they have also expressed surprise that it worked so well. 

“We used Zoom’s webinar format, which worked well but lacks the ‘breakout feature’ offered by regular meetings. It would have been nice to be able to get a dialogue going between participants during the breaks between lectures,” states Roland Lindh.

Training offered leading up to digital conferences

Pelle Lindé serves as Business Solution Manager at University IT Services. The division offers tips and training in organising a digital conference. The organiser then manages the conference on their own. He does not highlight the webinar function, even though it contains a number of features that the meeting function does not offer – partly because it lacks “breakout rooms”, as previously mentioned. Most of the desired features are part of the meeting function.

“So far, I have not received information that ‘breakout rooms’ have been a desire during webinar sessions. It is also easy to set up multiple Zoom meetings for conference sessions,” he states.

For a webinar, up to 1,000 participants can be connected. For other formats, the maximum number of participants is 500. Additional participants can take part, but for a special fee.

Roland Lindh, from the Department of Chemistry of the Uppsala Biomedical Centre, believes that digital conferences are here to stay – but perhaps more in a hybrid form.

“An example of this could be that lecturers and key people meet physically on site, while participants largely, if not entirely, take part online. The meeting is streamed and recorded, and it is free to non-participating attendees,” he says. He then adds:

“All of this is in its infancy, and there is still a lot to learn and great development potential. However, I think we will continue with this even post-COVID-19.”

The hybrid form places greater demands

Organising a conference or event in hybrid form, i.e. that is both digital and physical, places greater demands on those involved compared to a purely digital meeting.

Pelle Lindé:

“When everyone is participating under the same conditions, it is quite easy to handle logistics, audio, video, etc. since all participants have a computer with camera, microphone and speakers close to them.” 

“But, if just a few people in a room need to share a microphone and camera, while others are connected over the internet, there are significantly greater demands on the participants. The easiest thing is for everyone to be in the same room or everyone to participate via link.” (Things to keep in mind for hybrid meetings; see fact box below)

In accordance with GDPR, no data is saved for longer than 30 days. It is therefore not possible to see how many conferences or the like were held in the autumn.

“My guess is that we have conducted 10–15 webinars in the autumn. I’m not sure whether it was a conference or not. It isn’t always so clear.”

“But many use the regular meeting function for conferences. They usually set up an ‘opening meeting’ with the webinar function, and then switch to regular Zoom meetings per conference session. This works really well,” says Pelle Lindé.

Travel has decreased very sharply

During the corona pandemic, practically all conferences, symposia, thesis defences and other events have gone digital. In addition to reaching a larger audience, the shift to digital has reduced environmental impact, as we are not allowed to travel to conferences abroad in these times of crisis. This is clearly seen in Uppsala University’s travel expenses.

The figures for 2020 are not yet finalised, but up to and including the end of October, we travelled for just over SEK 13.5 million – i.e. just under one-sixth of the University’s 2019 travel expenses of just over SEK 85 million. It should be noted that these figures only represent bookings made via the travel agency Lingmerths. There is also a great deal of travel booked directly via the service providers SJ, UL, SL, SAS and Destination Gotland that is not included in the statistics. 

Domestic travel tops the statistics with 4,866 one-way trips, followed by travels within the Nordic region (959), Europe (2,786) and other parts of the world (1,316).  In normal cases, the highest percentage of travel by University employees is foreign travel.

No one knows what travel will be like after corona.

Karolina Kjellberg, Head of Environment at the University, explains that the topic of how the corona pandemic has affected travel has been discussed at environmental representative meetings in the autumn.

“Many environmental representatives say that they do not believe that travel will return to pre-pandemic levels. There may be a sharp increase initially when the pandemic subsides, as there is a pent-up need. But in the long run, they believe that travel will be at a lower level than before, as we have discovered how smooth and well digital meetings work,” she says. She is supported in this by Marie Engegard, Travel Coordinator at the University, who believes the number of pure research trips may increase, initially.

“All air traffic in the country has decreased by about 70 percent during this time, and the airline industry itself believes that it will take two or three years before we reach the same volumes as before,” says Marie Engegard.

Swedish Environmental Protection Agency Corona pandemic’s impact on carbon dioxide emissions. (swedish only)