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Fresh sense of enthusiasm palpable everywhere

You were appointed President of the European Biophysical Societies' Association (EBSA) at this year's get-together. What is the importance of scientific societies and what contribution can they make? 

Elena Pohl: Scientific societies make a vital contribution to scientific progress. Scientific research is immensely important in our modern world. And we have seen this for ourselves – taking vaccinations as one example – during the pandemic, too. EBSA comprises various national biophysics societies throughout Europe, including Biophysics Austria. Since 1984 it has focused on promoting basic research at the interface between biology, physics and medicine. Its activities center on meetings designed to facilitate the exchange of scientific insights, foster scientific debate and open the door to new collaborative working relationships. EBSA also supports young researchers with grants to help them participate in meetings and attend other research laboratories in the course of their work.

"Unusually high level of interest"

Biophysics Austria's 60th jubilee provides an opportunity to look back over past achievements, as well as a chance to take a look at what the future holds. What are your aims for the society? 

The jubilee and the EBSA Congress – which Biophysics Austria is organizing in Vienna for the first time this year – generated an unusually high level of interest in biophysics research and its potential applications among the scientific community and, at the same time, from the general public. Our scientific program also resonated well with people with a general interest in the subject matter, to such an extent that we welcomed numerous attendees from outside the research community at the public lecture given by Nobel-Prize-winning Israeli crystallographer Ada Yonath

This successful event led us to consider introducing further measures to help raise the profile of university research, and in biophysics in particular, among the wide population. Besides the Long Night of Research, this could take the form of events for school children at Gymnasium high schools.   

We want to build on the momentum unlocked by Biophysics Austria as it prepared for this event. This includes hosting regular independent biophysics events at the national level, with a view to promoting stronger networks and closer collaboration within Austria. With biophysics gaining more and more credence, we want to do our bit to raise the wider profile of basic research in Austria. For many years, per capita investment in Austria has only been roughly half of the figure channeled into basic research in Germany, and as little as 25% of the amount reported for Switzerland. 

"Face-to-face exchange will always be essential"

The coronavirus accelerated digitalization in many parts of our lives, but how important is face-to-face exchange for research? 

It will always be essential in the research sector. Many of our participants confirmed just how excited they were at the prospect of attending an in-person event again after such a long time. A pressure-free environment, spontaneous interactions, new acquaintances, and the ability to look at body language in group discussions all help to smooth the way for more efficient exchanges. Initiating new and unexpected collaborations, and networking with people from other areas who you would not necessarily otherwise come into contact with, are all much easier in face-to-face scenarios. 

But digitalization by no means passed this year's congress by – we had a large number of participants who, for whatever reason, were unable to come to Vienna to attend in person. New technology enabled them to join in as active participants. As a result, we had lecturers who were able to present their latest findings even though they had to stay in their home country.

"Fresh sense of enthusiasm palpable everywhere"

What conclusions would you draw from EBSA 2021? 

I'll start with the stats. There were 435 in-person participants at the congress in Vienna, while a further 267 attended online. We had around 170 outstanding speakers who shared their latest research findings. Our evening poster discussions over snacks and wine were a great success.

It was younger participants in particular – who had previously only been able to take part in such events online due to coronavirus-related restrictions – who were most taken by the opportunity to compare notes with others at an in-person event. A fresh sense of enthusiasm and happiness that an 18-month hiatus had ended was palpable everywhere. We can say with some certainty that online-only meetings will not be replacing in-person congresses like EBSA 2021 any time soon.

"Vienna is unbeatable"

How did Vienna shape up as a meeting destination for a hybrid congress? 

When it comes to hosting international congresses, Vienna is unbeatable. But it's about much more than the unique charm, numerous sights and friendly locals that make the city so attractive. What I found incredibly important was the highly efficient, customer-oriented partnership between the different organizations that represent the tourism sector. Right from the outset – in our case, that was when we submitted our application to host the EBSA Congress in Vienna in 2017 – we received the full and highly efficient support of the Vienna Convention Bureau. During the pandemic, many of the organizations involved including the Hofburg, Austria Center Vienna and the Vienna city administration, showed maximum understanding for our situation and always did their best to help come up with suitable solutions. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz agreed to take on the patronage of our congress, which came as a clear indication of how important the research sector is in Austria.

The feedback from our participants was also overwhelmingly positive. I think one professor from the United Kingdom summed it up best: "This was by far and away the most difficult to organize congress of all time, but it was a huge success. Anyone  who wasn’t there missed a lot!"

Further information:
EBSA 2021
Interview with biologist and Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath as part of EBSA 2021
Interview with neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof as part of EBSA 2021