Letter from the President (#138)

Should we webcast from the Goldschmidt conference?

head_mgoldhaber.jpg: Marty Goldhaber (2008-09 GS President)
Marty Goldhaber
GS President (2008-09)

The Goldschmidt Conference has become one of the top, if not the top, geochemical meetings in the world. As Alex Halliday, President of the EAG, stressed to the joint meeting of the GS and EAG Boards of Directors in Vancouver, assuring the future of this conference is a trust that we must take very seriously. The importance of the meeting, and its growing size and complexity requires us to plan further and further into the future. Preparations for the 2009 and 2010 conferences in Davos and Knoxville are at advanced stages and we are now seriously looking at 2011, 2012, and beyond. In that light, we need to take the long view of issues that may affect our meeting. Although there are several long-range concerns, in this note, I would like to look specifically at trends associated with the cost of travel.

The person-to-person exchange of ideas is a critical function of our conferences, so travel is a particularly important consideration. Yet travel, especially internationally, is becoming increasingly expensive. In recent months, increasing fuel costs have negatively influenced air travel. Although, as I write this, the per barrel price of oil has dropped to only $50, the likelihood is that over the long term, rapidly increasing demand in industrializing countries and general population growth, together with the prospect of reaching peak oil production will drive oil prices higher once again. Some analyses predict the peak of world oil production will occur around 2020 (although the timing is controversial). . .

So what does this have to do with the future of the Goldschmidt meeting and ‘webcasting’ in the title of this piece? For many organizations around the world, the internet is starting to offer an alternative to travel for exchange of information. This was emphasized for me when one of our members sent an email suggesting we view live webcasts from the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society meeting in Ithaca, New York, USA. The webcasts were of a very high quality, unlike the sketchy, jerky pictures that some may associate with webcasting. There were several viewing panes for each talk, so that the viewer could simultaneously see and hear the speaker and view the PowerPoint slides. The capability exists for those watching remotely to submit questions to the presenter. Three parallel sessions were streamed over five days. Based on talking with several folks both in leadership positions with the Planetary Sciences Division, and local meeting organizers, the overall feedback from the webcasting experiment was highly positive. There are issues about archiving talks that contain information embargoed pending publication, so these talks were not archived. Altogether, there were 6500 hits for their webcasts, although perhaps 40% were from attendees’ onsite. Probably a number of the onsite hits were from people viewing a talk that they were interested in that they could not attend because of a scheduling conflict against a competing session. Based on the overall numbers, many scientists were able to view either in real time or as part of the archive, presentations that they would not have otherwise have seen.

Driven by some of the above considerations, the Board of Directors of the Geochemical Society exchanged ideas on webcasting from the Goldschmidt Conference. Most members were supportive. However, some raised concerns that the camera would inhibit presenters. Others suggested that archiving of the presentations should only occur for a limited period. Time limited archiving would allow viewing by those who could not attend the meeting or a given talk, but keep the more informal and potentially speculative nature of conference presentations (relative to publications) intact. There seemed to be some agreement that major talks given in plenary sessions and award ceremonies were potentially a useful focus for webcasting and archiving. This has been the strategy of the American Geophysical Union, which has webcast some featured lectures since 2003.

Of course, cost will be an important consideration. Some sense of the costs comes from The Geological Society of America (GSA), which webcast five major events from their recently completed annual meeting in Houston Texas. Based on discussions with the GSA meeting planning staff and the audiovisual subcontractor, the total cost was $5700 plus some additional charges for the camera and labor. The Division for Planetary Sciences spent under $40,000 to webcast their multiple sessions. These numbers are within reach for a conference whose overall budget tops well over a million dollars.

A key consideration that we will need to address in order to implement a webcasting strategy is the potential for a negative financial impact on the meeting. Although the overall budget for a Goldschmidt is subject to many uncertainties, projecting the overall attendance is one of the most important variables. In order to make the meeting financially successful, the meeting organizers must make financial projections far in advance of the meeting date. Adding an uncertain impact of webcasting on meeting attendance on top of other financial uncertainties is not feasible without detailed long range planning. For that reason, external webcasting will not be done from the Davos meeting in 2009.

Nevertheless, as noted above, the likelihood is that transportation costs will increase over time, perhaps dramatically. Furthermore, environmental considerations may start to weigh more heavily in people’s travel decisions (for example, see discussions at Nature and Science). I think it is time begin to plan for webcasting from future Goldschmidt Conferences in 2010 and beyond. Perhaps we can start with webcasting and archiving the major addresses from these future meetings. For the Knoxville meeting in 2010, we might look into limiting web access to scientists and students from economically disadvantaged countries who would not otherwise be able to attend. However, eventually we should develop a financially viable strategy for presenting the entire program on the web. There may well come a time when international travel becomes prohibitively expensive to scientists either financially or environmentally. We will need to have a plan in place for when that occurs.