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Being at one of the first in-person conferences since COVID-19 was surreal, but valuable, writes SciDev.Net managing editor Ben Deighton.

[TRIESTE, ITALY] It isn’t just the constant temperature checks, hand sanitiser stations and sea of masked faces. There is something extremely surreal about attending a real-life conference in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.
SciDev.Net was one of the few international publications to attend the EuroScience Open Forum in Trieste, Italy, from 1 to 6 September. This was — to our knowledge — the first international conference to hold an in-person meeting since the beginning of the pandemic.
The conference, which looks at the intersection between science and society in Europe and beyond, has been held in a different European city since it launched in Stockholm back in 2004.
The event was run in a hybrid format, with the majority of sessions either online, or featuring a mix of online and in-person speakers. It was a bold move by organisers EuroScience, and one that paid off.
“We have people here who are researchers, teachers, science journalists, science communicators, science policymakers, interested citizens,” EuroScience president Michael Matlosz told me.
“What we want is to take advantage of that opportunity to have just unlikely encounters between people.”

Matlosz said earlier, during the opening ceremony of the conference, that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was more important than ever to meet and put science under the microscope.

“It was unthinkable for us… that the opportunity for those exchanges, discussions and debates, precisely during this crucial period in our history when the interaction between science and society is so important should not take place.

“ESOF is more important than ever today.”


While crowds in Trieste were of course thinner than previous conferences, the organisers say some 2500 people registered for the event, with more than 1000 participating in person.

That’s not bad, all things considered. By comparison, 4000 people attended the previous version of the conference, in Toulouse in 2018.

ESOF 2020 Opening
The socially distanced opening ceremony of the EuroScience Open Forum 2020, in Trieste, Italy. Credit: Fiona Broom

And many of the big names in science showed up in person, including Fabiola Gianotti — the head of CERN — and Gaetano Manfredi, the Italian Minister for University and Research. Even the Prime Minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte, attended the closing ceremony.

It was hard to network during the conference as the masks meant you were never quite sure whether you had met someone before — meaning that everyone was frantically nodding and blinking at each other throughout the event, just in case.

But in the end, you got used to it.

“It’s the new normal,” said Carlo Cavazzoni, the director of a high-performance computing lab who was moderating a session in person, even though all of the speakers were remote, so that he could meet with acquaintances in Trieste.

“When you get used to it, then the interactions become as usual, I don’t feel blocked by the mask when interacting with people.”

I have to say, I agree. I think ESOF 2020 showed the value of in-person meetings, as long as the right precautions are in place of course.

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