Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Carbon Footprint of Medical Conferences

There's been another kerfluffle in the British Medical Journal about whether medical conferences are worth their environmental cost.

In the June 28, 2008 issue of the BMJ, Dr. Malcolm Green, professor emeritus of respiratory medicine at Imperial College, London, argues that international medical conferences are a luxury the world can no longer afford. He quotes calculations indicating that the annual meeting of the American Thoracic Society, which attracts 15,000 attendees, is responsible for 100 million person-air-miles of travel and 10,800 tonnes of carbon emissions. And he says that the "American Cardiac Society" attracts 45,000 attendees, who travel 300 million person-air-miles.

(We'll be kind to Dr. Green and the BMJ's copy editors and pass over the fact that there is no American Cardiac Society. I'm guessing he meant the American Heart Association.)

"If there are, say, 20 medical conferences a year in the US," Dr. Green writes, "and we add in conferences in Europe, Asia, and Australasia, the impact from travel toconferences would be at least 6 billion person air miles a year or 600,000 tonnes of carbon."

Wow, are there really only 20 medical conferences a year in the US? I cover that many all by myself, and I go to only a tiny minority of them. He's off by at least an order of magnitude, and probably by a factor of 50 or more if you include medical conferences outside the US. His main argument--that medical conferences could more easily and more economically be conducted virtually, online, via teleconferences--would be more persuasive if he didn't make those simple errors of fact.

His opponent in the BMJ's "Head to Head" debate is hardly more persuasive. Dr. James Owen Drife, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Leeds General Infirmary, argues that nothing can substitute for face-to-face contact, and that anyway medical conferences only have a minuscule effect on global warming.

I'm surprised that the BMJ would publish such a poorly argued debate. Neither debater did more than wave his hands to support his argument that virtual conferences would (Dr. Green) or would not (Dr. Drife) be an adequate substitute for face-to-face meetings. I would have been happier if either one of them pointed to a single well-done study--hell, even a single lousy study--that demonstrated the value, or the lack of value, of face-to-face scientific meetings. Their arguments are even short of anecdotal evidence!

One thing is for certain. There would be dire consequences for medical journalists if virtual medical conferences became popular.

1. We'd no longer be able to wheedle subsidized travel to Detroit, Mich., Anaheim, Calif., Orlando, Fla., and other exotic vacation destinations.

2. We'd lose out on the romance of modern air travel, the luxurious amenities in airports, and the tender loving care of flight attendants.

3. We'd have to purchase our own pens and post-it pads.

4. No more free stale coffee, pasta salad, and rubber chicken in meeting press rooms.

5. We'd have even less reason ever to move away from our desks, and our profession would be afflicted with an ever worsening epidemic of writer's ass.

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