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Academia and flying

When I started in academia I had no idea how much travel was involved. I started a PhD because I was fascinated by computational possibilities in digital sound, and almost by chance I ended up at one of the world-leading research groups in that area, which just happened to be nearby in London. Throughout my PhD I was lucky enough to get funded travel to conferences in interesting cities like Copenhagen and Helsinki, which was an unexpected plus - not just for the research benefits you get from meeting other researchers worldwide, but just for being able to visit and see those places.

Now, two things we know are that international travel tends to involve flying, and that flying is bad for the environment. Having finished my PhD and now working as an academic researcher, there are still plenty of research conferences around the world that are good to go to: they're specifically good for my project right now, and also for my professional development more generally. On average, research conferences are in other countries. So, is it possible to be an academic researcher and avoid flying? Does that harm your career? Could academia be "rearranged" to make it involve less flying?

Here's an example: I was invited to give a seminar in a European country. A nice invitation, and the organisers agreed to try and arrange to travel by train rather than plane. From the UK, this is tricky, because as an island the options are a little restricted: we have some nice (but slow) ferry services, and we have the Eurostar. It's hard for me to request non-plane transport because it tends to be more expensive for the organisers, and it can be really hard to schedule (since there are fewer schedule options and they take longer). So in the end, this time round we had to go for a compromise: I'm taking a plane one way and a train the other way. We couldn't do better than that.

In environmental terms, we can do better - I could decline the invitation. But academic research is international: the experts who are "next door" in terms of the subject are almost never "next door" geographically. If you want to develop your research you have to have meaningful personal interactions with these experts. Email, phone, videoconferencing are all fine, but if that's all you do then you lose out on the meaningful, full-bandwidth interaction that actually leads to new ideas, future collaborations, real understandings.

(For some research that confirms and discusses the importance of face-to-face collaboration, try this interesting story about lasers: Collins, H.M. "Tacit Knowledge, Trust and the Q of Sapphire" Social Studies of Science p. 71-85 31(1) 2001)

As a whole, is there much that the academic world can do to mitigate the amount of travel needed? Well, I'd still say it's worth encouraging teleconferencing and the like, though as I've noted I don't think it completely scratches the itch. Should we try to focus on local-ish conferencing rather than one global summit? That doesn't strike me as a very fruitful idea, since it would reduce the amount of international mixing if it worked (and thus the amount of productive international collaboration), and I don't think it would work since one "local" conference would probably tend to emerge as the stronger.

And if you're a researcher, aware of the issues involved in heavy use of air travel, you have a balance to strike. How much can/should you turn down interesting opportunities for presenting, networking, collaboration, based on geographic distance? Will it harm your own opportunities, while others jet off to take advantage of them? Personally I know there are specific opportunities I've turned down in the past year or so, because it didn't feel right to jet off to certain places just for a couple of days' meeting. In other cases, I've taken up opportunities only after making sure I make the most of the visit by adding other meetings or holidays into the visit.

Your thoughts would be welcome...

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