Virtual networking – the unexpected benefit of a pandemic for science and technology

  • 8 April 2021
  • General, Technology
  • Dr Penny Owen and Andy Morris

Like everyone else we at NPL have had to move our conferences and events online. Our scientists and engineers, used to speaking on regular occasions around the world, have adapted over the last year to giving webinars from their living rooms and home offices via zoom and Teams.

At NPL, we regularly host conferences and events from Teddington and our NPL North facility in Huddersfield.  In early 2020, we had 98 events scheduled, including an Innovation Showcase planned for March in partnership with other PSREs. This and our other in-person networking opportunities had to be redesigned and rescheduled as online events as the pandemic continued. Instead, we hosted a series of Innovation Webinars to showcase the untapped and exciting innovative science and technology residing in the UK’s public sector and how it can be harnessed to boost UK industry, including a pioneering ultrasound breast imaging system and ground-breaking digital imaging technique. Of course, we learnt much about the differences between in-person and online events as the year progressed.  We finished 2020 by hosting a conference with 526 attendees from 61 countries around the world, our most successful virtual event of the year and one that couldn’t have been delivered with the same number of participants as a live event from our Teddington facility. So for science and metrology, as collaborative international endeavours, we recognise the opportunity from the pandemic to rethink the events of the future.  

An unexpected benefit of this change has been that our events have been able to reach a much wider audience: 14 live events held prior to lockdown attracted 491 participants, however we recorded 8,870 participants across the 48 online events held in 2020. We have also seen considerable interest from overseas delegates, not only aiding in the UK’s aim to become a scientific superpower, but also allowing us to expand the range of topics and the frequency of events that we run. One of our networks, the NPL Manufacturer Measurement Network (MMN) runs regular in-person evening events to encourage businesses to attend after normal working hours  -  preferable to a lot of smaller businesses. While the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to this way of operating the demand from businesses to hold these events continued. Instead, the MMN team put on their first ever online events in the hope that members would continue to engage and learn from the topics that were presented. Since October 2020, the MMN has hosted 8 online events, each well attended.

The lessons learned from taking the MMN events online are many, including the opportunity it has given us to reach a wider geographically based audience across the UK and to present a wider range of topics (because we can reach this wider audience). We will continue to include an online option for future in-person events and hold online events during the working day, which businesses have stated they prefer (in contrast to the in-person evening events).

We cannot ignore the elements of in-person events that are missing from online versions, especially the ability to easily network, to make new contacts and even do business around a meeting table. The opportunity to chat with people that you know over a sandwich and a cup of coffee and the opportunity to engage with the audience when presenting in a straightforward two-way conversation.

As the UK’s National Metrology Institute, the organisations we work with cover all regions of the UK (and the world) and we use our events to stay in regular contact with small and large manufacturers, service business and academia, bringing everyone together to share industry knowledge & best practice alongside new and emerging opportunities. The aim of these networking events is to foster innovation and encourage growth within the UK manufacturing, scientific, engineering and R&D sectors. Going forward we see the opportunity to use a combination of in-person and online events. There is scope for both, either as separate entities or as a blended offering, each have their strengths and weaknesses and should be chosen depending on the target audience and the topic being presented.

Our Outreach programme has gone virtual too. Launching Measurement at Home in early summer 2020 to ensure science education could safely be brought into homes across the country whilst schools were closed. Encouraging young people to enter engineering and science roles is an important part of the work we do at NPL, supporting the future generation of measurement scientists and engineers with events such as ‘The Joy of Engineering’, which we hold regularly at NPL North. Due to the success of our Outreach activity last year and in line with current restrictions, we are continuing to deliver this programme virtually. Since the beginning of January 2021, 27 different members of NPL staff have ‘met’ 6495 people via 32 activities, including the Quantum Shorts film festival, Cardiff Science Festival and virtual career fairs. 

Through the virtual world, we have been able to reach more people, engage with more organisations and bring science and engineering expertise into people’s homes, across all age groups. As we look to the challenges of building back better and addressing climate change, that can only be a good thing. 

Dr Penny Owen joined NPL as Commercial Director in 2017. After completing her PhD in Biochemistry at Birmingham University, Penny joined Amersham International as a research scientist developing new drug discovery assays in collaboration with major pharmaceutical industry customers. She took the opportunity to move to a business role and subsequently held a range of marketing roles, covering products from molecular biology and radiochemicals to sensitive detection instruments for cellular imaging. Following the acquisition of Amersham by GE in 2005, Penny held a range of senior business leadership roles, including leading a large research consumables business unit and developing a sales and operations planning team.

Andy Morris joined the NPL Measurement Services team in 2008, and in 2012 became Operations Manager of the NPL North of England laboratory. He has worked in the Metrology industry for over 30 years, specialising in Dimensional metrology, DC/LF and RF/Microwave calibration. Andy obtained his Technology BSc from the Open University along with his Diploma in Systems Practice and Certificate in Natural Sciences; he also earned an HNC in Electronics & Telecomms whilst undertaking an apprenticeship in calibration, life testing and quality with British Telecom.