After many months of planning for a 2020 GYA in-person Annual General Meeting (AGM) and International Conference of Young Scientists in Kolkata, India, COVID-19 began to make its way around the world. With varying degrees of shutdowns, lock-downs and travel restrictions implemented in different countries and world regions, it became clear that 2020 would emerge as a year of upheaval, change, and digital meetings. The GYA quickly started to re-imagine its meeting plans, asking: How might we turn necessity into a virtue; what can we learn from convening our entire membership at a virtual AGM and Conference; how can we make these events impactful and inclusive?

First, the decision was taken to separate the internal business of the GYA’s Annual General Meeting – which includes core activities such as Working Group meetings, General Assembly discussions, inauguration of new members and elections of the Executive Committee – from the more public International Conference of Young Scientists. The newly conceptualized e-Conference “Heal the Earth: Sustainable Development Goals in a Changing World” is taking place online from 29 June – 10 July.

Next, from everyone’s home-offices, ad-hoc research into virtual conference software was undertaken and in close cooperation with Executive Committee and Programme Committee members, the GYA Office set up a space for virtual interaction: using a combination of Zoom for live calls with up to 300 participants, Goolgedocs for collective collaboration, recorded videos on YouTube (both listed and unlisted), uploaded reports from participants, and the conference and community app “Whova” to host the event. The e-Conference is also located on Whova, with live and not-live interaction opportunities, offering new, experimental ways of engagement with GYA members, representatives of National Young Academies, renowned scientists and professionals in science policy, and key partner organizations.

The GYA’s first e-AGM thus ran officially from 8 – 12 June, and included an unprecedented number of participants: over 180 GYA members and alumni connected via the online AGM platform and in virtual calls. Unofficially, the e-AGM stretched out over the course of four weeks: starting with a virtual pre-AGM Science Leadership Workshop for new GYA members in the last week of May, and extending one week before and after the core AGM week with online Working Group meetings. Not only did the e-AGM see record attendance of GYA members and alumni, but also the overall activity level of Working Groups has increased more than is usual after an in-person meeting.

At the opening of the official e-AGM week, the GYA welcomed 40 new members. On three consecutive days, live 2-hour General Assembly Meetings were held to address GYA activities in the coming year as well as implementation of the GYA’s newly developed 5-year Strategic Plan, which will be publicly launched in the next weeks. To represent and lead them through the upcoming year, GYA members also elected a new Executive Committee (EC), including two new Co-Chairs, using the online voting programme “Election Buddy”. The two Co-Chairs elected for 2020/21 had been members of the EC in the past year: Michael Saliba (University of Stuttgart, Germany) and Anindita Bhadra (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research–Kolkata, India).

What worked?

The experience of transforming a normally vibrant, intensely packed week-long meeting of over 100 early-career researchers from different disciplines and countries around the globe into an online meeting was a significant challenge, especially considering the short notice and the altered working conditions of GYA members and Office staff. However, the collaborative hard work and creative ideas resulted in an overwhelmingly positive experience, which can be measured by the overwhelmingly positive reactions, impressions and feedback received during and following the meeting. Some of the advantages of the e-format mentioned were:

  • Meaningful interaction and constructive discussions were possible despite virtual limitations.
  • Interactions were inspiring; the vibrancy of the community was evident.
  • Participants’ high level of motivation was palpable even in the digital medium
  • This format could be a sustainable meeting model for the future, possibly alternating between virtual and in-person meetings in alternating years.
  • Virtual meeting increased inclusivity to some extent: those who wouldn’t have been able to travel due to other career or family commitments, financial or visa restraints, could join the meeting.
  • Active use of breakout rooms in Zoom re-created spontaneous and informal connections.
  • Centrally organized Working Group meetings, spread out over several weeks allowed participants to take part in more meetings than usual. Many meetings were well prepared and much more effective than e-mail communication.

Challenges and Overcomes

Certain challenges to the virtual format, as opposed to an in-person meeting, were also noted. In the next months, we will undoubtedly hold more virtual meetings replacing planned in-person gatherings, so we hope to learn from this recent experience and work towards innovative solutions.

  • Unequal access: Not all participants have the same access to reliable internet and electricity, compatible devices or in some cases even access to software due to national regulations. For this reason, much of the e-AGM and e-Conference were planned as asynchronous interaction – reading and watching reports and then chatting or contributing to documents when the internet is working. But internet access is not only an issue of available infrastructure but also of widely varying costs. (See this overview of varying mobile data costs around the world). The GYA therefore offered some financial support to purchase data for mobile devices to those members for whom access to the event worked most reliably through mobile data. We also encouraged participants to turn off their video feed when not speaking, in order to reduce the data sent during live calls. In the future, keeping data-use to lower levels and providing some financial support seems to be a necessary means of increasing inclusivity.
  • Too many time zones: GYA members span the globe from Hawaii to New Zealand, so it was impossible to find one time zone, which was comfortable for all participants. The pre-AGM new member workshop was therefore split into two time-zone cohorts: East and West. During the e-AGM, one central time was selected which was fairly comfortable for most participants, but required comfort sacrifices on the part of those few in the farthest away time zones from UTC.
  • Virtual is also at home: Not meeting at an in-person conference also meant that most participants had simultaneous other commitments during the e-AGM events. Accommodating for this situation was one reason the event was stretched over four weeks, (even longer if one includes the e-Conference). However, these competing commitments do in part take away from the focus of a meeting.
  • Serendipitous coffee conversations are hard to replicate: The group dynamics of the GYA were to some extent reproduced, but to a large extent thrive from informal contacts between members, and valuable small-group meetings, both planned and spontaneous. Despite some useful community functions of the Whova app, interaction is necessarily more structured online and less unprompted.

In conclusion, GYA members and Office staff approached the transition to an e-meeting with open minds, and made the best of the unknown situation. There are many lessons to be learned, and the GYA looks forward to building on this experience for future meetings, in-person and virtual!

Partners and Funding Institutions

Thank you to many GYA members and alumni who co-conceptualized and implemented the 2020 e-AGM. Furthermore, the flexibility of GYA partners and funding institutions to support the speedy transformation from an in-person to an e-meeting were instrumental in ensuring a successful and inclusive meeting: InterAcademy Partnership, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Special thanks go as well to members of the Local Organizing Committee in India – members of the GYA and of the Indian National Young Academy of Sciences (INYAS) – who had taken extensive preparations for the planned in-person meeting before COVID-19 interrupted those plans, and who continued to inspire and contribute to the e-Conference. The Global Young Academy also gratefully acknowledges core funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and support from its host institution German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.