Are scientists using science ?

by Amélie Bret

I love going to conferences around the World. That’s one of the cool things you can enjoy working as a researcher. During these events, several researchers present their work to other researchers. That’s an amazing time to learn about recent work, and discuss it with colleagues. Also, conferences may be one of the researchers’ activities where it is possible to reflect on the following question: Are we [scientists] using scientific data to improve our practices?

PART A — THE CASE OF TRANSPORT.

The way we move from one place to another can have negligible to huge environmental impact depending on the conveyance. Several scientific fields deal with climate change, but from different perspectives. Physics, Chemistry, Geology, Medicine, Ecology, Psychology, and a lot of others can contribute to our understanding of this complex phenomenon. Today, thinking about how human activities impact climate and biodiversity is likely to be worthwhile[1|2]. Climate scientists already ask themselves about how their own actions could be in line with their scientific conclusions [3|4|5|6|7]. The interplay between description and prescription is tricky but necessary.

If we trust the scientific method for our own research subject, it could be logical to trust this same method concerning other issues. If I’m an experimental psychologist studying visual perception of moving objects, I have very few reasons to doubt that my global scientific method cannot be trusted when dealing with climate change. Hence, climate scientists should not be alone in questioning their own traveling habits. Maybe we could — all scientists — take the opportunity to address these kinds of questions. This logic applies here but also in the following sections. The main idea is that it should be difficult for a scientist to ignore science (her/his own, or others’) in her/his everyday life.

In this perspective, it could be imaginable to rethink how we organize and take part in scientific conferences. With the development of computer mediated interactions (e.g. twitter, webinars…) it is now possible to reduce the number of conferences, and to organize smaller conferences — specialized in a particular field of research but also specific to geographical areas. Also, instead of doing 2 days conferences 4 times a year, it could be possible to prefer going for 4 days conferences twice a year. Geographical locations could also be decided based on the smallest cumulative distance necessary to reach the place for all attending scientists.

The good news is: focusing on smaller conferences could foster more (quality) interactions with people in our field as compared to huge impersonal conferences.

PART B — THE CASE OF GOODIES.

In all the conferences I have attended so far, I have received several goodies. I do not doubt that the intention behind it is nice and that organizers want to please attendants. However we can, here again, ask ourselves about the costs and benefits of such initiatives. For instance, another simple way to reduce our environmental impact could be to remove goodies. Indeed, a lot of goodies are made of plastic and not necessarily useful. Besides, we could prefer digital (instead of paper) versions of programs, and if we still want to offer participants goodies, a ceramic mug seems to be the good idea: no more plastic glass for coffee breaks.

The good news : the money saved in goodies can be injected in higher quality food !

PART C — THE CASE OF FOOD.

Talking about food, here is one huge concern. Often, we pay for a package for the entire conference. This package usually includes food. Large buffet, meal tray, snacks are served to the starving brain. Several findings in biophysics, ecology, psychology and medicine have already shown the benefits of a vegetarian/vegan diet for several reasons : environmental, health, and ethics[8|9|10]. Why do we still see so much meat/fish and dairy in scientific conferences ? A vegan diet allows everyone to eat the same food independently of religious and ethical considerations -we would just have to take care of allergies- and it would allow us to reduce our environmental impact during our conferences. Alongside the diet, is the question of waste. A lot of buffets are composed of plastic packed sandwiches and disposable utensils (cutlery, plates, glasses…). Could we imagine to change our habits ? Using finger food and washable dishes would address the question of waste.

The good news : gain of time, no need to ask for special menus everyone can just eat vegan !

PART D — THE CASE OF SOCIAL INTERACTIONS.

Talking about sharing and equality treatment, it might be surprising but we can observe a lot of gender bias in conferences [11|12]. Women are less invited as speakers, and asked fewer questions [13]. Besides, some sexist commentaries can still be heard. Maybe we could imagine to explicitly pay attention to these problems, using speech mediators, and raising awareness of the situation.

No one to blame right now — nor you — nor me — Just thinking about other possibilities, and what is the purpose of research.