I wrote a couple of weeks ago about ‘Our last DIMES’ meetings (on September 22nd, 2021). They were hybrid meetings with about half the participants attending in person and the remainder on-line. When the pandemic started we had to master the skill of conducting discussions via our laptops while sitting on our own. Now, we are learning how to include everyone in a discussion when only half of the participants are in the physical room. One of our first steps was to re-equip our meeting rooms with higher quality video conferencing facilities so that we can see and hear one another more clearly. Unfortunately, our new equipment revealed the poor quality of the video clips we have produced during the DIMES project. Nevertheless, if you have never been present during a wing-bend test or a fatigue test on a large composite panel then you might find these clips interesting (see also the video of ‘Noisy progressive failure of a composite panel’ on June 30th 2021). We also produced an introductory video for the DIMES project which was to be first in a series of video shorts but the pandemic intervened and we have never been in the same place as our camera crew so we have not made anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing because 500 hours of video are uploaded every minute to YouTube so you will not have time to watch our DIMES videos 😉.
I feel that I am moving to the next level of experience with online meetings but I am unsure that it will address the slow down in productivity and a loss of creativity being reported by most leaders of research groups to whom I have spoken recently. About a month ago, we organised an ‘Away Day’ for all staff in the School of Engineering with plenary presentations, breakout groups and a Q&A session. Of course, the restrictions induced by the pandemic meant that we were only ‘away’ in the sense of putting aside our usual work routine and it only lasted for half a day because we felt a whole day in an online conference would be counter productive; nevertheless, the feedback was positive from the slightly more than one hundred staff who participated. On a smaller scale, we have experimented with randomly allocating members of my research team to breakout sessions during research group meetings in an attempt to give everyone a chance to contribute and to stimulate those serendipitous conversations that lead to breakthroughs, or least alternative solutions to explore. We have also invited external speakers to join our group meetings – last month we had a talk from a researcher in Canada. We are trying to recreate the environment in which new ideas bubble to the surface during casual conversations at conferences or visits to laboratories; however, I doubt we are succeeding. The importance of those conversations to creativity and innovation in science is highlighted by the story of how Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna met for the first time at a conference in Puerto Rico. While wandering around San Juan on a warm Caribbean evening in 2011 discussing the way bacteria protect themselves against viruses by chopping up the DNA of the virus, they realised that it could be turned into molecular scissors for cutting and editing the genes of any living creature. They went home after the conference to their labs in Umea University, Sweden and UC Berkeley respectively and collaborated round the clock to implement their idea for which they won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Maybe the story is apocryphal; however, based on my own experience of conversations on the fringes of scientific meetings, they are more productive than the meeting itself and their loss is a significant casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are people who point to the reduction in the carbon footprint of science research caused by the cancellation of conferences and who argue that, in order to contribute to UN Goals for Sustainable Development, we should not return to gatherings of researchers in locations around the world. I agree that we should consider our carbon footprint more carefully when once again we can travel to scientific meetings; however, I think the innovations required to achieve the UN Goals will emerge very slowly, or perhaps not all, if researchers are limited to meeting online only.