A Letter to the Society for Economic Botany Committee Regarding Future Meetings

*This statement has been edited slightly for publication on the student blog.

March 23, 2020

We hope you are all doing well during these trying times and managing to take care of both your mental and physical health as well as possible. With the months spent in isolation, we have had a lot of time to reflect and to discuss paths towards a more inclusive and environmentally responsible future for meetings held by the Society for Economic Botany and International Society of Ethnobiology. We would like to share some of these thoughts with you.

            As a result of the postponement of the conference this year and the society’s new plan to include more digital content over the summer, we deliberated over the value of incorporating more virtual elements in lieu of the society’s in-person conferences.

            Global warming and climate change is perhaps the largest issue the planet is facing at present. As the younger generations who will see even worse times to come, we feel it is our responsibility to decrease the carbon footprint of the society; indeed, as an academic society involved in the natural sciences, we suspect this is a goal shared throughout the various generations within the society.

            We are proposing that the society begin placing greater influence on the virtual content it is able to share in order to help limit the amount of travel needed to attend physical meetings. By no means do we think that physical conferences should be forgotten, but we would like to see future conferences available virtually as well as in person. Not only will this allow us to decrease our carbon footprint, but it will also allow those who are financially unable to attend to participate in the conferences. As such, this will especially serve to help students, emeritus professors, early career academics, and researchers from nations with less access to funds (“developing” nations). This would help the society become much more diverse, which would be to its benefit in the long run. Not only would we be able to share our research with more colleagues from around the world, but we would be able to make connections with individuals with whom it would otherwise have been impossible. Beyond the advantage to current members, this would also be greatly beneficial to “new” members; indeed, it should surely be the role of the society to stimulate ethnobotanical research worldwide in any way possible, and this seems like a simple and effective way of doing so. We feel this would also help bring more indigenous and international voices to the table, which would make the society truly global and perhaps lead to more individuals from around the world wishing to be involved in leadership roles in the society.

            In addition to having conferences available online (as indeed many societies are already doing this year as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak), this would allow us to have content throughout the year, which allows a greater flexibility for busy academics, working parents, and students who are also juggling part-time jobs to participate in the society and to share in the dissemination of research and knowledge. Overall, a move to networking and presenting research by digital means could be a way to truly help the society grow into the modern era and to make it available and attractive to a much broader range of academics than it currently reaches. Though largely American, the society is meant to be international, and we feel that it has room to grow in this direction in order to truly fill its academic niche on a global scale.

            As we have said, we are not hoping to see the eradication of physical conferences, merely a dual pathway of attendance that will ultimately benefit those who are not able to attend in person. Eventually, we would like to even see alternating years of purely digital conferences with years of digital and in person ones. However, we realise that the networking and the environment of a physical conference cannot be entirely replicated online, and as such see the continued need for some amount of physical meeting. That being said, new technologies are making this easier and easier each year.

            For those who are worried about the loss of revenue this would cause the society with fewer people becoming members as a result of physical conferences happening only every two years and decreased physical attendance at these conferences due to simultaneous online access, we understand your concerns. However, we feel that such a move could in fact serve to boost membership, especially in the groups we have previously discussed. With content available throughout the year and to individuals around the globe regardless of their income and funding opportunities, we feel that the society could simultaneously cut its carbon footprint, grow its membership, and become a much more diverse and international entity. 

            The world is evolving around us and though change may often be scary, we feel this is a necessary avenue for the society to follow should it wish to reach its fullest potential in the new digital age. Those of us already able to physically attend the conferences have a great privilege, and we feel that this should be more widely shared, especially when one also considers the environmental implications.

Thank you for your time in reading through our thoughts, and again, we hope you are all keeping well.

The Society for Economic Botany Student Committee

Aja Grande, Student Representative, 2019-2020
Karsten Fatur, Student Representative-Elect, 2020-2022
Matthew Bond, Student Committee member 2015-present
Jason Irving, Student Committee member, 2017-present
Kim Walker, Student Committee member, 2019-present

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