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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...

Tuesday 20th November 2012 | science | Permalink
Name: JJ Aucouturier
Website: http://twitter.com/jjtokyo
Email: aucouturier art gmail dort com
Date: Tuesday 20th November 2012 11:33
I feel the same tension between how I personally don't want to fly overseas (because it is not very useful for me personally, it has a huge cost both environmental and financial, and it feels like a very 1990s-spoiled thing to do), and what I fear would happen with science if all international exchanges suddenly stopped.

That said, if I take every oversea trip I've taken in the past 10-15 years, I'm not sure if any one resulted in a collaboration that lead to publication (in fact, all of them rather resulted from publications). All the successful collaborations I have had have resulted from long stays in other people's labs (>6 months), i.e. from living rather than traveling in another region. So maybe these frequent short trips are over-valued indeed.

Last time I thought about this was through (the late) Bill Reading's The University in Ruins. His point with such frequent traveling (for confs, collaborations, etc.), if I recall, is that it diluted the historical role of the University as a means to promote and protect the idea of a nation-state/national culture. He had a whole, very entertaining section about how academics are now all very content to be platinum frequent flyer program members, and at the same time regret the crisis of values in their own university. Not sure I agree with every point in the book, but a great read nevertheless (gives a killing to the concept of "excellence" too, which is hilarious).
Name: Alex McLean
Website: http://yaxu.org/
Email: alex art slab dort org
Date: Tuesday 20th November 2012 11:40
I only travel to EU conferences, but rely on people flying from further afield to meet them, which is just externalising my carbon footprint. It's possible to avoid flying, but spending an extra day or two away from home travelling is heartbreaking with a young family, and there's other excuses.

Watch out for greenwash though - I just don't believe the carbon neutral claims of train travel, and can quite believe that train travel is *worse* than flying in some circumstances.. As far as I know (not very much, admittedly) any link between vehicle altitude and climate change is not understood, and the impact of your travel is strongly dependent on vehicle occupancy and energy source, as well as the vehicle's energy use.. Plus if you take the train through France, you have to take a view on the long term environmental risks of nuclear power... I'd be interested to read some up to date and reliable information on this if you know of any.

There's no easy way out, academic activity is contributing to climate change, so in my view we are probably doing far more damage to the world's population than it could benefit from in terms of research outputs.

Perhaps we are understating the potential of internet based collaboration.
Name: Phil Cox
Email: philip dort cox art hyms dort ac dort uk
Date: Tuesday 20th November 2012 13:09
Yes, it bothers me as well, but I can honestly say that some of the most important jumps forward in my career have happened at international conferences because of the ability to meet and talk face-to-face with other researchers in my field. So, I'm loath to give them up. Luckily my employers are helping me to be green by not providing me with much in the way of travel funds! Seriously though, I tend to go to one big international conference every three years and then stick to local ones (UK/France) for the rest of the time. I don't know whether that's good enough, but it feels better than jetting off every year.

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