Academic travel and climate

I’ve travelled on plane more times that I can count. Part of my family lives in Hungary, and I grew up in Spain, so I’ve taken countless back-and-forth trips to visit them, at least once a year and sometimes more. So when people told me that academics go to conferences, I didn’t see any problem. In fact it seems pretty cool - you have to present your work anyway, so why not do it somewhere nice, while meeting new people and places?

The question is, I don’t think I can keep doing it, even if I where in academia at the moment. Over my PhD I traveled to 7 different countries, between courses and conferences, in around 3 years - if COVID didn’t hit it might have been a couple more, even. In hindsight, most of these meetings weren’t strictly necessary, and the impact my research might have had in the community (spoiler: I don’t think it has had much) can be equally met in remote attendance presentations, as my wonderful experience at well-organized conferences such as the virtual 2021 ESHE (European Society of Human Evolution) meeting.

The scientific collective is most likely very highly aware of how much climate change will be a problem in the future, even outside of climatology. Yet, I’m sure academic conference travel won’t stop in the future – in fact, I’d argue that most conferences will likely recover most of its presentiality over time. So why does this happen?

We are, implicitly, almost forced to these travels

I’m guessing the problem here is derived from the way science is structured - as with many other aspects of the academic culture. Academics don’t fly only because it’s nice and they like to travel (thought that’s a big incentive for sure), but also because conference attendance is key in their professional lives.

First, academic grants increasingly require international collaborations, meaning academic travel fuels the funding machine with projects. Internationalization is highly regarded in funding bodies, as a proxy of the interest of a topic in a field – as in, if people all over the world are willing to collaborate on something, it won’t be so likely to be bullsh*t. It also plays well into the “interdisciplinarity” discourse that sells well in funding opportunities: collaboration of several research groups with different perspectives into a more holistic or multifaceted solution of a scientific problem is well regarded, and that necessarily requires trust relationships that are forged in person.

Second, conferences are key for ERCs (early career researchers), as they lay out the foundations of the contacts that will provide job opportunities in the form of postdocs in the future, and allows for CV building by offering an opportunity to be known in their communities.

In essence, regardless of at what stage of your academic career you are, you are required to attend to conferences. And while your work might have the same impact in remote and presential settings, the shared times and small-talk opportunities of presential time provide a crucial advantage towards building a contact list. I’ve met academic that make a praiseworthy effort to avoid taking planes and going to unnecessary conferences, but it’s also true that some of these are established scholars in their field, with a very high quality of work and publication record, and others in a starting position are certainly taking a hit in their careers due to their position, to the point of meeting uncomprehension from their department peers. I recognize also that others might be doing better, so if you have taken this decision and want to share your experience, feel free to tell send me a mail and I’ll post your experience in this page or link to it.

Of course, the only reason you need contacts for grant applying and postdoc positions is, in reality, that academia is a deeply unstable job, where a dry spell of funding or an unwillingness to move every couple years can cost you your carefully career. Internationalization is supposed to ease the flow of ideas, but it might actually be driving people to take advantage of short-term advantages (such as travels leading as increased number of grants and publications with collaborators) in detriment of the future of science in a much harder climate - in all senses, considering the economic consequences of climate change in the long term.

Some notes about flight-shaming

Of course, I can’t judge anyone that decides that they can’t stop travelling: their careers depend on it, and the overall problems of climate change are fueled by far more systemic practices than those of academics going to conferences. But I think before applying solutions one has to diagnose the problem, and it’s not always immediately obvious how the way the way science is structured economically forces you to engage with certain questions, including climate. Please take these words as a reflection, not as flight-shaming.