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Seven steps to make a journey to scientific conferences more sustainable



 Red-haired young woman using laptop on a train

Traveling by train can reduce the environmental impact of attending a conference. Wavebreak Media ltd / Alamy

All scientists face pressure to give external seminars and attend conferences. This is especially important for early-career researchers because they can help them to find new positions, and add to their CVs. To do research effectively, scientists need to build networks and collaborations, and learn about cutting-edge developments in their field.

, A return flight from London to New York (11,000 kilometers), for example, releases around 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide – roughly the same as that produced, on average, by a year's car usage in the European Union. Attending a conference generates 800 kilograms of CO 2 emissions per participant.

From our experiences as junior and established faculty members in biological and physical sciences, the number of conferences seems to be increasing. This year, for example, Gordon Research Conferences – one of the larger conference organizers in the life sciences – is running more than 300 meetings, compared with around 155 in 2000.

Here are seven practical proposals to reduce travel in academia, based on our own experiences attending conferences and discussing with colleagues:

Cut down on meetings

Major organizers need to justify the meetings they run. One consequence of less meetings might be that the remaining conferences have stronger speaker lists;

 Passengers wait at the arrivals hall of Narita International Airport

Busy airports are not working to get done. JIJI Press / AFP / Getty

Pool conferences

Meeting organizers should set windows for particular fields each year. For instance, a series of conferences on different aspects of developmental biology could be consecutive in, say, Heidelberg, Germany, then Wageningen, the Netherlands, and then Prague (or even in the same city). Speakers traveling long distances could cover multiple meetings in a single trip. The conference was held at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California. Scientists would less often, but for longer. This does not take any challenges, especially for those with young families, but we think that combined with our first point, it would significantly reduce the total time traveling each year.

Lead by example

Senior academics could attend conferences and encourage junior lab members to take their place. To incentivize this, hiring and funding bodies could be transferred to a total number of invitations. Scientists who limit travel should be more attractive to a potential employer. This proposal does not necessarily cover all career opportunities and gives early career researchers opportunities to build their careers. By becoming the champions of sustainability, senior and mid-career researchers could generate awareness and drive a systemic shift in scientific culture.

Use technology

Although video conferencing is not as good as face-to-face meetings, it is improving and time-consuming – and cost-efficient for both the audience and the speaker.

Consider greener alternative

Trains, for example, are much more environmentally friendly than flights, and should be the main form of transport across Europe. Yes, the journey takes longer and can be made more expensive, but it's easier to work on than to plan, and if there are fewer conferences, less time is spent traveling.

 

Get creative

It's not just about travel. Sustainability should be central to conferences. Organizers or attendees could serve or request low-impact food that might be vegetarian or locally sourced. Some conferences have already banned single-use plastics; others should follow their lead. The use of buses and other transportation should be minimized (except where needed for accessibility), and if the event is spread across different locations – it's a great way to build relationships 2 [

Self-regulate

Finally, everyone should assess their travel is justified 3 . Each scientist could adopt an annual 'air mile' quota. Some scientists have even decided to give up. A quota could encourage us to attend the meetings we attend – do the career benefits outweigh the environmental costs? Researchers can therefore also make a conscious contribution to their environmental impact. Carbon offsetting is the easiest option available, and more organizers should do it. These are only a stop-gap measure and are not sustainable long term – scientists must reduce their carbon footprint, not assuage their guilt.

 

We do not have clean hands, but we suggest these measures because people currently need to reduce consumption 4 5 . Scientists face significant pressures to travel – a culture change is needed. Individuals can petition conference organizers, administrators and others in the community for an environmentally friendly scientific culture. Conferences are often organized by researchers, so we have the power to apply pressure and change organizations. Travel should not be an essential element of academic success; instead, evidence of sustainable travel should be validated in a researcher's career.

This article is now part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 media outlets highlighting the issue of climate change.


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