Opinion: Thiago Goncalves – Science is creation, and pandemic hinders advances with distant scientists

When we think about the work of scientists, often the image that comes to mind is a person in a lab coat, using high-tech equipment. But is that all?

It’s true, in many cases this is part of everyday life for researchers — although it’s not exactly the case for me, as an astronomer who spends most of his day in front of his computer. Still, an important step in any scientist’s work is what comes after the result: the dissemination of his work.

Part of this is writing scientific articles, which will be published in peer-reviewed journals and read by colleagues around the planet, but another part is participating in conferences. And this is simply not the same in pandemic times.

I thought about it because, this week, I’m participating in the Annual Meeting of the Brazilian Astronomical Society. It is a traditional meeting, which unfortunately was canceled last year due to the pandemic, but which in 2021 was held virtually.

It’s amazing to think that communication technology allows us to participate in conferences from a distance. At the same time, it is important to be aware that the experience is not the same.

Scientific conferences, for me, are much more than attending lectures or presenting my work. No, perhaps the most important thing is the time for coffee, lunch, free time around the lectures.

Not because the talks aren’t important, but because they trigger the conversation that comes later.

Science is knowledge creation, and the most productive discussion comes after presentations. With your mind racing, it’s the opportunity to meet colleagues with similar interests, and to put your brain to work and think about the next projects, the next research, the next questions to be asked.

Unfortunately, at the current annual meeting this cannot be done. We had excellent seminars, including Dr. Andrea Ghez, who received the Nobel Prize in 2020 for her studies of the Black Hole supermassive in the center of the Milky Way. But there was no opportunity to talk to her next; the lecture ended, she shut down her computer in California, and I could no longer follow the conversation.

For students, I’d say it’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it’s much easier for them to attend conferences, as the associated costs are much lower — after all, there’s no travel, just the connection of internet.

On the other hand, they now have fewer opportunities to interact with future advisors and seek out new opportunities from fellowships or research groups for their careers in the near future.

Conferences were for me an opportunity to interact with my peers, exchange ideas and think about the future. Now, they are virtual presentations that do not allow us to interact beyond a brief exchange of texts.

Remember: the hardest part of science is not finding answers, but thinking about questions that have never been asked. These conferences were the ideal environment to foster these reflections, and I hope to be able to return to the face-to-face format soon so that we can stimulate our minds as we did before.

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