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Academics who fly less - my story

I've been struggling with the tension between academia and flying for a long time. The vast majority of my holidays I've done by train and the occasional boat - for example the train from London to southern Germany is a lovely ride, as is London to Edinburgh or Glasgow. But in academia the big issue is conferences and invited seminars - much of the time you don't get to choose where they are, and much of the time there are specific conferences that you "must" be publishing at, or your students "must" be at for their career, or you're invited to give a talk.

What can you do? Well, you can't give up. So here's what I've done, for the past five years at least:

  • I've declined various opportunities to fly (e.g. to North America and Australia - I'm Europe based). Sometimes this hurts - there are great meetings that you'd like to be at. In general, though, you usually find there are similar opportunities nearer by. You'll probably meet most of the people in one of those events anyway. In the big picture, it's probably better for academia to be structured as an overlapping patchwork network, rather than having single-point-of-groupthink.
  • I've taken the train to many conferences and meetings. From the UK I've taken the train to France, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, and I'm happy to go further. If you haven't done long train journeys for work then maybe you don't realise: with a laptop, many long-distance train journeys are ideal peaceful office days, with a reserved seat and beautiful views scrolling past. (UK folks: ask The Man In Seat 61 for the best train trips.) If your concern is making time for the journey, don't worry! You'll be much more productive than when you fly!
  • When invited to fly somewhere, I always discuss lower-carbon ways of doing it. Rome2Rio is a handy site to compare how to get anywhere by different means. If flying is the only way and I'm tempted to accept the invitation, I ask the inviters to pay for carbon offsetting too.
    Many university administrations don't want to pay for carbon offsets - why? This needs to change. If they're paying for flights they should be paying for the negative externalities of them. I'm not worried here about whether carbon offsetting is a good excuse or not - I'm concerned about research being more aware of its responsibilities.
  • If travelling somewhere (even by train), always try to make the most of the journey by finding other opportunities while out there - e.g. a new research group to say hello to (even if just a cuppa), a company or NGO. It's good to make face-to-face contact because that makes it much easier to do remote collaboration or coordination at other times (with the same people, I mean), reducing the need for extra trips.
    (Talking to my German colleagues, I learn that the German finance rules mean you have to travel home as soon as possible after the event, i.e. not roll multiple things into one trip - that's an unfortunate rule, we should change that.)
  • And of course I've done plenty of video-conferencing and audio-conferencing. It doesn't replace face-to-face meetings and we should be realistic about that, but it's a tool to use.

There's a cost implication which I haven't mentioned: flights are unfortunately often cheaper than trains and stopovers. This needs to change, of course - and can be a bit tricky when you're invited to speak somewhere and the cost ends up more than the organisers expected. However, I've been managing a funded research project for the past five years and I've noticed that in fact I've spent much less money on travel than I had projected. Why? Well back when I wrote the budget I costed for international flights and so on. But my adapted approach to travel means I take fewer big long-distance trips, but I get more out of them because I combine things into one trip, and I've skipped certain distant meetings in favour of ones closer to home - all of which means the cost is less than it would have been.

By the way, this handy flight CO2 calculator can help to work out the impact of speific trips, including multi-stop trips, so you can calculate if combining flights into a round-trip is sensible.

None of these are absolute rules. We can't carry all the burden solo, and we have to make compromises between different priorities. But if we all make some changes we can adapt academia to current realities. We can do this together - which is why I've signed my name on No Fly Climate Sci, a place for academics collectively to pledge to fly less. As I said, you don't have to be absolute about this, and the No Fly Climate Sci pledge acknowledges that. Join me?

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