Hello! Thank you for joining this special edition of GeoTalk. Before we dig deeper, could you both introduce yourselves?
Hello! I am Helena, a research scientist in hydrology at INRAE, a national research institute in France. I have been involved with EGU for several years now, first as presenter (my first participation to an EGU General Assembly was in 2001 in Nice!), then as convener, sub-programme group chair for hydrological forecasting and then as president for the division on Hydrological Sciences. This is my last year as division president and my first year as Programme Committee Co-chair.
I am Thanos, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and an affiliate researcher at the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (FORTH) in Greece. I direct the Laboratory of Atmospheric Processes and their Impacts at EPFL and co-direct the Center for the Study of Air Quality and Climate Change at FORTH. My first EGU was the 2014 General Assembly, and from the first moment I felt at home. I was first deputy president of the Atmospheric Sciences Division and have served as division president since 2019, and this is my last year. It’s also my first year as Programme Committee Co-chair.
The Programme Committee has moved to having Co-Chairs over the last year. Can you tell us about what influenced this change?
Thanos: Great question. There were two very important reasons. First, we realized we needed more volunteer time at the Programme Chair level to address the ever-increasing needs from the rapidly growing EGU. Second, the General Assembly had changed format a number of times already, and settling to the best possible hybrid format required as much knowledge and insight as possible. It was clear that more than one person with deep knowledge of the General Assembly and the EGU all together was needed to meet this great challenge.
Helena: That’s true! During the past years EGU has grown a lot, in particular the General Assembly. To give you an idea, we have crossed the line of 15,000 participants in 2016 and were at about 18,000 participants in 2020, reaching the maximum capacity of the Austria Vienna Center, just before we had to move to a different format, which was, as you know, fully online in 2020 and 2021, and hybrid for oral presentations only in 2022.
Thanos: By the end of 2019, it was very clear that the workload involved in organizing the GA and managing the programme of 22 scientific disciplinary divisions, plus the programme groups dealing with inter- and transdisciplinary sessions, education and outreach, short courses, among others, was far more work than any volunteer could provide for the EGU. This was even more evident during the pandemic years, where each GA had a different format. That’s when we started discussing the need to hire a dedicated staff member to support the Programme Committee. This resulted in hiring Jane Roussak, EGU Events Co-ordinator, which some members have already met at EGU22 in Vienna or online.
Helena: This was a first, and I’d say much needed step. But still we had a big challenge ahead: how to build an efficient hybrid format for the EGU General Assembly? We wanted to make sure that scientists from all over the world, connected either onsite or virtually, could find the opportunity to communicate their work, exchange their new results, network with their peers, and expand their vision and skills.
Thanos: Exactly. We knew that finding our way through the organisation of hybrid conferences requires a lot of trial and error. Last year, sitting together with other members of the Programme Committee, we came up with the idea of having two co-chairs. We knew it was consistent with the Governance Review that the EGU Council had started some years ago. The eyes turned to the division presidents that were in the council and program committee for as much as possible – hence with the deepest knowledge of the GA and EGU – and ideally handling the largest programmes within the GA. That’s when Helena and myself looked at each other and said “OK, let’s do it!”
Helena: We received the support of Helen Graves, EGU President, and the Council, and here we are now! Almost six months into this new role and the preparations for EGU23.
The General Assembly is a massive undertaking, requiring the collaborative effort of many volunteers. Could you give our readers some insight into the time-frame it takes to organise an Assembly?
Helena: A massive human effort indeed! If you just look at the Programme Committee composition, you can already see how many people are involved in the organization of the GA, which in their majority are volunteers. To this, we can add the over 3,000 conveners of the almost 900 sessions that we have this year, and let’s not forget the over 16,000 authors that will be presenting their work. So, we do need to start very early for the organization of such a meeting.
Thanos: And early means right when a current GA is concluding! During the day of the GA, the programme committee meets to provide fresh feedback and impressions. The participant online feedback survey is thoroughly analysed over the next month to inform the next steps of the process. The Executive and Programme Committee (co-) chairs together with Copernicus (our meeting organizer) meet numerous times during the summer to define what might need to be technically implemented or improved for the next GA. Some implementations take months of preparation, so anticipation is crucial.
Helena: At the same time, the public call-for-session-proposal is launched. This is an important step for EGU, as the membership, in this bottom-up approach, shapes the GA programme during this public call. Winter is basically dedicated to manage the requests for travel support, to organize the Artist in Residence competition, and to put in place the main technical and logistic needs for the GA.
Thanos: Then one of the busiest of periods starts: when the deadline for abstracts approaches, which is usually in the second week of January. From there to around March, we have a lot to do!
Helena: Once the programme is released in March, we focus on preparing guidelines, videos, messages, etc., to conveners and presenters. This is the period also of preparing many networking events, which cover not only on-site in Vienna but also online. Here we have the great support and work of the EGU Office, including you Simon and Hazel Gibson, the EGU head of communications. It is amazing how the office team can think of so many things, never forget any details and get things done so well!
As Co-Chairs of the Programme Committee, you have an overview of many of the important decisions made by the Committee which shape the Assembly – from the session scheduling to strategizing for the future. Can you tell us how the Committee approaches these big decisions?
Thanos: It is important for us to follow the EGU philosophy as a bottom-up organisation. We open-up for discussing and receiving ideas and suggestions from all the Programme Committee members. They are, most often, the division presidents, who liaise directly with their community members. The direct feedback from the ECS, feedback forms and other forms of communication are also crucial. By listening to them, we are thus also listening to EGU members and the geosciences community, overall.
Helena: We know that there are many, many decisions to be taken, so Thanos, Jane and I meet regularly (on a weekly basis during the most crucial periods) to make sure we go together through all of them. We try to distinguish those decisions that we can take at our level as “PC Team”, and those we need to consult first, either with the EGU Executive Board, including EGU Executive Secretary, Philippe Courtial, and EGU President, or with the Programme Committee as a whole.
Thanos: When chairing the Programme Committee meetings, we try to bring proposed solutions to the table, and we plan enough time to discuss fully the main options we have and directions we might take. Once everybody expresses their opinions, a vote is carried out.
Helena: At the moment, and thinking ahead towards the future, the most crucial decisions we are facing are those related to the hybrid format of our future meetings, and to the way we can ensure our long-term commitment to a green EGU. Our aim is to offer an excellent experience no matter if you participate to the GA onsite or virtually. Each presenter should be able to find and choose the presentation format that best fits their work, should it be the oral, the poster or the PICO presentation format, and to benefit from communicating their work in any of these different formats.
Thanos: We also want to make sure that our commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion of opportunities in the geosciences is also fully embedded in the way we put in place our future hybrid GAs.
Helena: Finally, our predecessors, Peter van der Beek and in particular Susanne Buiter, have worked a lot to minimize the environmental footprint of EGU GAs. We would like to continue these efforts while implementing the fully hybrid GA format for the next years. We have to deal with many constraints that are out of our control, but we believe that, together, we will find the way to succeed in all these endeavours!
The Union depends on the valuable time and effort volunteers like yourselves can give – how do you balance volunteering for the Union, work, and life otherwise?
Helena: I have always volunteered for things I love to do (or I think I will love doing), and that I believe will also bring me additional personal or professional skills. For sure it is not all that is needed to keep it all balanced in your life. I also believe that before any commitment it is important to have a clear understanding of what is expected from the volunteer work, and how the skills you are bringing in can match those expectations. If you volunteer just to “check a box”, it is almost sure that it is not going to be as fulfilling as it should be, and you are most probably going to find yourself overworked.
I am not going to hide that the organization of the EGU General Assembly has been in particular time consuming since 2020. We have never had one GA similar to another since then! To keep balance, it was important for me to prioritize (which means accepting that some tasks that I’d love to do would not be done, or would not be “perfectly” done), and also to establish clear volunteer “time blocks” in my agenda. This last issue is often more complex, as sometimes it is hard to know when and for which specific activity your volunteer work is needed.
Fortunately at EGU I have always worked within teams where I feel connected and valued; this, of course, also helps a lot when it comes to finding the right balance.
Thanos: I couldn’t agree more with Helena on all the points raised. The EGU and its General Assembly resonated deeply with me from the very beginning, so it was almost a natural process to get more and more involved. I never thought 10 years ago, while still a faculty member in the US, that I would have such an important role in the EGU and for so long. It is a great honor in fact, one that felt like a major welcoming to Europe when I moved here in 2018. It has been deeply satisfying experience, but for sure remains a challenge to balance it all. Understanding what each task involves, blocking the right time for it, planning enough in advance, being flexible and not spending more time on each task than needed are all critical. It’s a dynamic process, and at times there are very long days involved, especially when considering all other commitments and – most importantly – family. I have been very fortunate though to work with people that I admire and get along well with, and have a family, research groups and colleagues that are most supportive, so it all works out in the end. Only time will tell how well!