ESA moving forward and going virtual

by Osvaldo Sala, President, and Catherine O’Riordan, Executive Director

One of the strengths of the ESA organization is the ability to adapt to challenges in our programs and in our science. Like most other organizations responding to the pandemic, ESA moved to virtual operations in March and the DC office is temporarily closed. Staff continues to work from home while also facing some of the difficulties that our members face, such as dependent care responsibilities. We are proud to see how ESA staff and volunteers are stepping up to advance programs and innovate during this challenging time.

The final decision made last month to move the Annual Meeting to a virtual platform required that we consider what was best for our members and how canceling the in-person meeting in Salt Lake City would affect ESA’s financial health. ESA is diligent in managing its budget wisely to serve its members and provide programming, and we aim to be transparent in how we our financial resources are managed. Many of you are asking how ESA arrived at the decision to charge a registration fee and why ESA is charging at all to attend a virtual meeting. We would like to explain the series of steps and be very transparent.

It became clear to us in late April that Salt Lake City would not be able to host several thousand ecologists in August safely during the pandemic. We began negotiating with the Convention Center and hotels to cancel the meeting without penalty (large cancellation penalties are built into contracts for meetings of this size). Once we successfully achieved that, the staff turned to creating a plan and a new budget for an entirely virtual meeting. The plan and budget were approved by the Governing Board at its two-day spring meeting, held via Zoom in mid-May, where both items were at top of the agenda.

Several Board members worked closely with staff to evaluate the minimum registration fees needed to cover the costs of providing platforms for synchronous and asynchronous sessions, panel presentations, poster sessions and networking. To maximize participation, we knew that members would want the student fees to be as low as possible, and the Governing Board members also felt strongly that ESA should offer financial assistance to those facing economic barriers. The Board approved $20,000 in Opportunity Fund registration grants to remove barriers to participation; Sections and Chapters are also offering registration grants. We hope that a virtual meeting will remove geographic boundaries while we also realize the limitations of a virtual meeting platform and personal barriers to participation like dependent care, limited internet access and other factors.

The Annual Meeting website summarizes the plan to deliver our first-ever virtual conference. We are trying to maximize interactions and networking opportunities within the meeting. Most sessions will be prerecorded for on-demand viewing with asynchronous Q&A. Some feel this format to be stifling, but presenters are coming up with virtual solutions for engagement, such as scheduling a live Q&A using their own resources. There will also be daily live plenary sessions with live Q&A, and sessions covering hot topics in ecology over the four days. Career Central and the exhibits will be held too. All recorded content will be available for several months following the meeting’s conclusion. Many details are still being worked out, including networking sessions, the awards ceremony, and Section and Chapter events. We are pleased to see the creative solutions some ESA leaders have come up with, and we will be posting more information very soon.

Please join us this year. Our students’ future opportunities and the future of the ecological profession needs senior ecologists to show up and present research along with our students, even in this unconventional format. The reality of COVID-19 is really hard. A virtual meeting is not the same as an in-person meeting, but it still allows a forum to gather ecologists from across the globe into one space to showcase the latest developments in the science of ecology. ESA and ecology need you to participate and share your science. Our staff and amazing volunteers are working around the clock to make the meeting a success, and we welcome you to join us.

Virtual meeting registration is open until July 23.  You can also find a link to apply for a registration grant to overcome any barriers to participation. We will need your participation and feedback, not just because we might need to hold another all-virtual meeting in the future, but because we envision some form of virtual content for all future ESA meetings (for the first time we had planned to record all sessions in Salt Lake City and make them available after the meeting).

We do not have a crystal ball; what the future holds is not clear. Our situation may change in the coming months and years. During these difficult times, ESA is continuing to focus on our mission, value the contributions of staff and volunteers and adapt operations in response to new challenges.

We are confident that ESA can create a viable and vibrant virtual meeting, and we hope you will join the ecological community and attend.

Thank you for your continued dedication to the ecological profession and support of ESA.