The Chemical Science Symposium 2020 – An experiment in virtual conferencing and embracing digital platforms

At the end of September we held our annual symposium – the second in a new series of symposia that intend on bringing together researchers from a broad cross-section of the chemical sciences community. The theme and subtitle for this symposium was How can machine learning and autonomy accelerate chemistry? This symposia series, the first of which was held at our historic headquarters in Burlington House, London, has an ambition to enhance social networking between members of our research community while showcasing recent developments by a diverse set of international speakers. They also present an opportunity for our delegates to interact with our journal staff, Editorial Board members and learn more about how we are improving the peer review experience at Chemical Science – for example through our new submission system and article tracker.

Earlier this year, as the COVID pandemic began disrupting our way of life and pushing the community to adapt their dissemination routes and means to network, we took the decision to move our symposium to an online environment – a new experiment for both Chemical Science and the wider Royal Society of Chemistry. The programme was adapted to encourage engagement in this virtual setting while continuing to deliver some exceptional science from our invited speakers and contributing poster presenters. Overall, the result of this was a resounding success!

The presentations from our academia and industry-based speakers were very well received – with the following topics covered:

Yousung Jung KAIST, South Korea: Efficient exploration of solid state chemical space using machine learning
Graeme Day University of Southampton, UK: Building a computational engine to guide the autonomous discovery of molecular materials
Joshua Schrier Fordham University, UK: Autonomous materials discovery: promise, pitfalls, and progress
Jill Becker Kebotix, USA: Accelerating materials innovation: discovery of electrochromic materials for smart windows
Jacqueline Cole University of Cambridge, UK: Accelerating materials discovery with data mining and machine learning
Lee Cronin University of Glasgow, UK: The Chemical Oracle
Kerstin Thurow University of Rostock, Germany: Suitable automation systems for accelerating chemical research
María José Nieves Remacha Eli Lilly & Company, Spain: Autonomous chemical synthesis in flow for drug discovery

From left to right: Y. Jung, G. Day,  J. Schrier, J. Becker, J. Cole, L. Cronin, K. Thurow, M. J. Nieves Remacha

In addition to these talks we also held a number of networking and discussion sessions, including one that focussed on the digital tools used by researchers both within and external to the chemical sciences and where the future of this discipline is heading. The discussion session, hosted by Chemical Science Editor-in-Chief Andrew Cooper and Associate Editor Alán Aspuru-Guzik complimented the work carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry to publish a report on Digital Futures. We’ll report on this session separately.

As with all experiments, we are now in a position to reflect – some things were very successful, such as the quality of our presenters, the science being discussed and the level of engagement during our scientific sessions. However there were also challenges and aspects that need further thought in the future. Outside of software limitations and the obligatory technical hitches during a conference about digital research, perhaps predictably, networking was clearly not nearly as simple as you would find during a physical meeting. While we had a range of fantastic posters at the meeting and designated networking sessions, neither the virtual poster hall nor the chat rooms replicated the same random and chance encounters and discussions that we’re all used to and make a physical meeting such a useful and interesting place to be. So while we looked to give opportunities for delegates to connect, this is clearly an area we need to rethink. As the pandemic continues, the future effects this will inevitably have on the conferences landscape are unknown – now is a time for both researchers and event organisers to look to enable new ways to facilitate this. How do we continue the kinds of discussions that lead to knowledge sharing, future collaborations and job openings in an organic way that doesn’t require delegates to be forced into a chat room and told to network? While we ponder this problem from our side, we’d be grateful for thoughts and ideas from our community too.

So what does all this mean for 2021 – plans are currently underway for the next iteration of this symposium series and we will announce further details as soon as we can! In the meantime we would also welcome your feedback – regardless of whether you attended this meeting, our first symposium or you are thinking about maybe attending in the future. What would you like to see at our future symposia and how do you think they should be held – a physical meeting, virtually or a mixture of the two?

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those involved with the symposium – from our Chairs and presenters through to our delegates – thanks for helping make this such a successful meeting in these challenging times. If you would like to share any thoughts on our symposium series or suggestions for future changes (or topics) please do get in touch with our team at

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