Thoughts on reducing academic flying

Guy Lipman
Aug 25 · 5 min read

There is increasing focus in academic circles on reducing the amount of flying done by academics. I’m keen to support this effort for a number of reasons. First, academics fly a lot (relative to the past and to other fields), and this has a negative environmental impact. Second, academics have important messages to society on addressing climate change, and perceived hypocrisy stops people listening. Third, the amount of travel required affects work-life balance for academics, and hurts the chances of those who are less able to travel due to lack of funding or other responsibilities (most notably caring for children or the elderly).

This blog post offers five suggestions for how the academic community can reduce the amount of flying done by academics. I realise that many academics aren’t in a position to change their fields single-handedly, so it shouldn’t be taken as attacking individual academics that currently need to travel, or to suggest that travel is never justified. Also, these aren’t the only ways of addressing the issue, and I’m certainly supportive of many other solutions that could form part of the solution. And as always, I’m grateful for the many discussions I’ve had with friends and colleagues on this issue.

1 Improving remote communications

Clearly, even the best video conference is never going to beat face to face meeting for quality of experience. There’s also something nice about the opportunity to spend extended periods of time with people, to build a genuine relationship. But when you take into account the time required to travel, as well as the financial and environmental cost, remote alternatives can make more sense, and we should be doing what we can to improve them.

I’d like to see us having easily bookable rooms where people can make calls, with or without video. Having technicians on hand would help ensure the equipment is working. We should work to ensure the equipment and software is compatible with different computers, different phones, different systems. This will be challenging, as institutions have limited ability to control what people are using on the other end of the call. But it does seem to me that spending money on these kinds of improvements, even a fraction of what is currently being spent on flights, would significantly improve the effectiveness and ease of remote communication.

2 Video presentations

A lot of academic travel involves attending conferences presentations, and indeed presenting. I’m not overly convinced how valuable these presentations are. I’m not always in the most receptive mindset for learning (especially if I have jetlag), and I’m easily distracted by the people a few rows away who feel the need to talk the whole way through the presentation. Quite often I realise within the first 5–10 minutes that the presentation I thought was going to be applicable to my research actually isn’t so relevant.

Some conferences are starting to record their presentations, but often the recording quality of live presentations is poor, and conference organisors are aware that making recordings available will significantly eat into their attendance (and revenue).

In contrast, I’ve seen a few excellent video recordings, ones that were designed to be watched online. One of my colleagues recently produced a 10 minute video alongside her latest paper, and it formed an incredibly effective way to get a sense of her research.

I’d therefore love to see academics producing more videos about their research, and making these publicly accessible. These could range from 5–10 minute overview videos, to 45–90 minute more in-depth ones, and could help researchers disseminate their research without needing to attend conferences (or forcing their audiences to travel to conferences).

In order to facilitate this, I’d like to see universities offering facilities and training for producing effective videos, as well as resources for hosting videos.

3 Networking

A lot of academics are quick to point out that people don’t go to conferences for the presentations, but for the networking. I agree that networking is important, and I acknowledge that the strength and breadth of my network has been helped by my willingness to travel, and this network has improved my productivity. I also acknowledge that the academic community needs a level of connection, within different fields, between fields, and between academia and society and industry.

In a future in which we better recognise the environmental cost of academic travel, and its unequal impact on people in different situations, we are going to have to work hard to develop other more sustainable methods of networking. Academics are going to have to work harder to discover connections between their work and that of others, and to be open to more serendipitous interactions sparked by email interaction where previously they would use conference coffee breaks and dinners.

I’d like to make one additional reflection on networking. While any field is much more productive with some networking than none, at some point networking becomes competitive. By this, I mean that in a well-connected field, while I might benefit from attending an extra conference or rushing to talk to the speaker at a conference, it will be at the expense of someone else, and it isn’t obvious that the field is better off if they’re connected to me than the other person. That isn’t to suggest that people should feel guilty for networking, but merely to point out that reducing overall networking-related travel will not necessarily lead to a worse overall outcome.

4 How we perceive success

The next reflection I’d like to make is that people (not just academics) have a tendency to perceive as more successful those who travel more, and present more widely. I’m not looking to argue that this correlation is entirely undeserved, but it seems to have outlived its usefulness. At a time when there are other ways to communicate and disseminate research without flying, and when we need to recognise the environmental cost and fairness issues with flying, I am confident that we can find better ways of judging success.

Some of this change will need to occur at an informal, social level. We all need to recognise ways in which academics can be productive without flying, and to give credit when this is done. Likewise, where people travel a lot, we should not assume they are productive, but instead expect additional productivity to justify this environmental cost.

As well, some change may be appropriate at a more formal level, where institutions assess performance and look to promote. Different institutions and departments have different processes, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some explicitly reward those that travel over those that make efforts to be productive without flying; such distorting incentives should be eliminated and indeed reversed.

5 How we structure and locate roles

I suspect there are some academics for whom frequent travel is essential to their research, for example, if they are based in one location but all their collaborators are in another location. While I can see the appeal in having every field of research represented in every location, and there is a value in diversity, I believe this needs to be weighed against the extra financial and environmental cost this incurs.

I’d therefore like to see research funders and university departments more seriously considering the amount of travel required when choosing to fund research. It may be that some are starting to do so, which would be great to hear, however I’d like to see it happening more widely.

Guy Lipman

Written by

Fascinated by what makes societies and markets work. Undertaking a PhD in sustainable energy at UCL. http://guylipman.com.

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