2 April 2020

Cloud Conference brings current research to a nation in lockdown

- Technology enables researchers to share expertise with over 70 delegates via videoconferencing
- Important scientific research and collaboration continues despite travel and contact restrictions
- Follow-on cloud conference planned for May 2020

Cloud Conference

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted learning and research activities at universities worldwide, but materials engineers at the University of Sheffield are leading the way to share the latest research developments in radioactive waste management through an online conference.

This week, Professor Neil Hyatt and colleagues from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University if Sheffield, hosted the first Cloud Conference on Nuclear Waste Management, Decommissioning and Geological Disposal.  The event was delivered entirely online using videoconferencing, and featured presentations from five leading researchers at the universities of Sheffield, Manchester, Lancaster, Birmingham and Southampton.

Neil said, “We recognised that there was actually a greater need for knowledge exchange and keeping in touch, with the introduction of social distancing measures and a transition to working from home.  Sharing our research leads to new ideas and collaborations, it’s a really important part of our work, and we wanted to find a way to keep that going without face to face meeting.

“While we’re living through a national emergency and doing what we can to support those people who working to overcome, we have to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and develop ways to maintain our own active working lives”.

Within a week, the Sheffield team had road tested several different videoconferencing platforms, set up a website for the event, and invited contributions to the programme and participation. The response was overwhelming, with over 70 delegates registering to attend and the offer of more talks than the programme could hold.  Neil added, “it was a scramble to get things organised, but the fantastic community response carried us forward with the organisation!”.

The Sheffield team also realised that delivering a conference using video conferencing technology, offered advantages in both cost and inclusivity.  Neil explained, “Delivering an event online means the cost is marginal – we have already invested in the technology, so there is no charge to participate. Going online also benefits inclusivity – in person meetings are not always accessible to those with caring or health considerations, for example”.

The success of the event has led to planning for a second online cloud conference to be delivered on 7 May and within 24 hours of the previous event, six presenters have come forward to contribute to this event.  The Sheffield team hope that the activity can be sustained as a way of maintaining and growing the research community, beyond the pandemic period, and reducing the carbon footprint of knowledge exchange by reducing travel.

Dr Luke Townsend, of the University of Manchester, who participated in the conference said, “It ran really well and it was very interesting.  I've made sure to sing the meeting’s praises to our group mailing list so there will be interest from our PhD to present in the future”.

The team are also exploring novel ways of organising future meetings to make them more interactive. Conversation and discussion in the coffee break, are an important part of research conferences, and for early career researchers provide a vital opportunity to develop their own professional networks – but this is difficult to achieve online. 

“But, what if we pre-recorded presentations and viewed them offline, and used the meeting time more to discuss the work and engage with each other?”, asks Neil, “Just as we’re using technology to support knowledge exchange in new ways, we don’t necessarily have to continue with the same format!”.

Details of the cloud conference on 7 May and instructions on how to sign up will be made available on the Department of Materials Science and Engineering web pages, but if you want to receive direct notification of conference registration, email Professor Neil Hyatt: n.c.hyatt@sheffield.ac.uk.

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.