“What did you do on global climate protest day, Daddy?”
“I was in the city centre, and joined the protest for a while. But I had to leave, as I needed to get to the airport to fly home.”
I was in Hamburg that day. To speak at a conference, of course, one of many recent academic trips abroad, to China, the US and Europe, almost all by plane.
Academic travel is seen as a perk of the job, although the trips can be less exotic than billed. Sometimes you arrive at the conference venue after dark and barely leave it, gulping down dubious sandwiches and second-rate coffee between panels of varying interest. But that is the exception. Normally there is time for a bit of sightseeing and a fancy meal out. A weekend break at the expense of another country’s research council. Nice.
Why does it happen? In my case I travel to give talks to students, and sometimes to the public, or to meet with doctoral researchers. There are also administrative visits, such as one this year as part of an international review team. But most of my academic travel is for conferences, which vary in size from a handful of people to thousands. The largest I know of is the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago where, incredibly, 30,000 people met this month.
But what are we doing to the planet? Almost all academics accept that plane travel fuels climate change. “What hypocrisy!” – this thought, like an electric shock, goes through the head of almost every academic as we board our planes.
Sometimes we do draw a line. I was asked to fly to New Zealand to talk on ethics and climate change. Ahem. Instead I arranged to speak by video link – an unnerving experience as my video screen was trained on the empty podium I would have occupied had I been there. I droned on, with no idea whether anyone stayed to listen.
I’ve been in the audience for similar things. I’ve chaired a session with a senior US academic painfully attempting – and failing – to deliver his first ever Skype talk. I’ve listened to video talks from African professors denied visas by fortress Europe. I’ve heard academics videoing in to reduce their carbon footprint. If the quality of the link is good, it can be an acceptable experience, as memorable as any other talk at the conference (sometimes a low bar). The technology is improving all the time, so why not organise all conferences like this?
For administrative meetings, where all the business is round the table, it can work. But for conferences or talks to students the point is not the keynote speech, but the keynote speaker – having them around to talk to more researchers or to students in the break, and to comment on other presentations. If you want just to see a senior academic on video, check out YouTube.
Researchers want to be part of an international conversation, sparking new collaborations and lines of research. Intense discussion, over the unspeakable coffee, is where it happens. Simply to be in the physical presence of scholars you are studying can be energising. Just as vitally, conferences democratise academia. You can be a star even if you work in a department that doesn’t make the rankings.
Banning academic travel would cement existing hierarchies and privilege. If you are not located where it happens you’ll be isolated. It would reduce access to cutting-edge work, take the life-blood out of the academic community, and hold back research. But at the same time, our carbon use is huge and growing. What is to be done?
Perhaps we should take inspiration from rules drawn up years ago for reforming animal experiments, the 3Rs: replace, reduce, refine. We must adopt something similar for academic travel. Replace with video calls where possible. Reduce your trips. Refine by planning your trip so it is really worthwhile. Obvious stuff but still, the 3Rs is a very useful mantra. And how did I discover it? At an international conference, of course.