Aug. 10, 2020

The NEST Conference went online, and it will not be the last time

Wider scope, more participants, and more inclusive, but fewer informal chats. The NEST Conference went virtual this year and is likely to do so again.

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A new way of meeting for the NEST Conference participants. Image: Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

“We were really wondering whether we should hold the conference at all this year,” Dr. Susanne Kunkel explains. She is a researcher at NMBU, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

Dr. Kunkel, Professor Hans Ekkehard Plesser, and colleagues from Jülich Research Centre have organized the annual conference for users and developers of NEST and related technologies. NEST is a simulation software for neuronal networks coordinated by a public society, the Neural Simulation Technology Initiative. 

Normally, the conference is held in pastoral surroundings at the university in Ås, Norway. This time, it all had to be done online, without being able to draw on past experience.

NEST has passed the threshold

In the closing remarks of the conference, Professor Abigail Morrison of the Jülich Research Centre in Germany summarizes: 

“First and foremost, it’s exciting to see the new scientific developments using NEST. We have heard new results on a wide variety of systems and phenomena and theoretical frameworks, from visual cortex to sleep and learning, from astrocytes to cerebro-cerebellar loops, and from structural plasticity to partial information decomposition.”

Professor Morrison is impressed by the development of NEST: 

“We now see ever more scientific advances produced with NEST as-is, without requiring additional models or functionality to be created. This means that NEST has passed a certain functionality threshold, such that it is capable of being used by non-developers to investigate a startling range of scientific questions,” she says, and continues: “It is equally fascinating to see the growth of an ecosystem around NEST which expands its potential into whole new areas of research.”

Miss informal social activities, but gain inclusivity

Despite the success of the first online NEST Conference, Morrison admits that a digital conference makes you lose something on the social level: “We can’t catch up with old friends or form new collaborations in the coffee breaks. We can’t make overly ambitious plans for new functionality over pizza and beer”. 

However, she also points out how an online conference is more inclusive: “Unfortunately, the focus on in-person conferences is one way in which the scientific community amplifies privilege. There are many common scenarios that make it hard to attend a conference, for example if you have children or other dependents to care for, limiting health conditions, or if you work in a lab or a country with minimal resources for travelling. Holding the conference online means that everyone can join in.”

More participants inspires format discussion

And in fact, the attendance increased: More than 70 attendees registered for the conference, from more than 15 countries spanning 18 time zones. 

“A digital conference has advantages, but we also think that meeting in person is a good thing. Maybe in the future we will use a mixed format but we are not sure yet how this is exactly going to look like. I guess it’s a matter of trying out different solutions to figure out what works best,” Kunkel says. 

European Union supports NEST

The development of the NEST simulation software is partially supported by the European Human Brain Project (European Union Grant-Nos. 604102 HBP RUP, 720270 HBP SGA1, 785907 HBP SGA2 and 945539 HBP SGA3) and the EU Horizon 2020 programme DEEP-EST (ICT-754304). NEST is a core simulation engine of the digital European infrastructure EBRAINS under construction by the HBP.