Conferences, Collaborations and Carbon: International Travel in Science

Conferences, Collaborations and Carbon: International Travel in Science

Far from the image of “lab rats”, resisting contact with the outside world, many scientists maintain a demanding schedule of international travel.  Whether to present their work, cultivate collaborations, or cement relationships with colleagues, these researchers are always on the move.  But all of this transport takes a toll on the environment and on the budget.  What value does it add, and is it still justified?

Far from the image of “lab rats”, resisting contact with the outside world, many scientists maintain a demanding schedule of international travel.  Whether to present their work, cultivate collaborations, or cement relationships with colleagues, these researchers are always on the move.  But all of this transport takes a toll on the environment and on the budget.  What value does it add, and is it still justified?

 

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From my earlier days in the lab as a microbiology research technician, I remember the delight of my colleagues at the chance to attend international conferences—not only for the skiing in Colorado or the sun in Brazil, but for the opportunity to learn about the very latest developments in the field and to forge connections with the people behind them.

While Joerg Heber, a senior editor of the journal Nature Materials, might very well share their enthusiasm on those points, he also feels that the travel expected of scientists has become excessive.  Earlier this fall, in a post on his personal blog (tellingly titled “Too much travelling in science”), Mr. Heber breaks down the environmental cost of shipping thousands of scientists around the world to attend the abundance of meetings offered each year.  When you add it all up, the numbers are indeed startling. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, director of the Center for Phytotherapy Research (CEPHYR), on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, and 2007 laureate of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award, admits “Mea culpa – I travel too much!”  Between meetings with policy-makers, invitations to speak, and her work with international organizations, there are probably only three weeks per year when she doesn’t travel.

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“I use Skype as much as I can, but nothing can replace that human contact.  At meetings, you have the chance to put a real face to a name.  [All this travel is] very tiring, but it’s so rewarding.  You feel you’re addressing questions at an international level, beyond just your own country.”

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This is significant, when so few problems are limited geographically.  Many of our issues are common to humanity, which is something that has driven the international migration of Marlein Miranda Cona.  Originally from Cuba, Ms Miranda Cona’s work in nuclear medicine for cancer treatment brought her to Italy, on a L’Oréal-UNESCO International Fellowship.  At the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, she learned new techniques unavailable in her own country.  Current research in nuclear medicine demands a lot of resources: for the radioactive isotopes, for bioactive molecules designed to target tumors, or for the advanced imaging technologies (MRI, CT and other scanners) used to evaluate the efficacy of the therapy.  Cuba’s economy simply could not provide them.

Marlein had intended to bring her knowledge and new skills home with her, but, upon her return to Cuba, the hospital where she worked was undergoing such extensive renovation that her entire department was closed.  Unable to continue her research, she returned, instead, to Europe to undertake a PhD program in the Radiology Section of the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven, Belgium.

Today, Marlein Miranda Cona feels strongly about the importance of gaining visibility for her team’s work.  “Oncocidia is a new and exciting anticancer therapy and we need to tell people.  This therapy that we’re developing is to treat most solid tumors, it’s not specific to one [type of] cancer.  I’m very optimistic.”  For this reason, she is able to justify her colleagues’ globetrotting in the name of advancing their work.  In the end, though, she concedes that the most important goal is to get good results and improve techniques.  If they succeed at this, hopefully, the rest will follow.

It would seem that the UK’s independent national academy of sciences, the Royal Society, agrees.  In the face of budget constraints, two separate funding programs—one for attending conferences, the other in support of international collaborations—have been folded into one.  The resulting International Exchanges Scheme now facilitates only collaborative projects.  A fair response in a difficult economic climate, but will the creation of such projects be hampered if face-to-face contact is reduced?  Marlein Miranda Cona’s experience is an example of the quintessential international collaboration.  She is the only Cuban member of an otherwise entirely Chinese team, working at a Belgian university.  How easily could such a partnership get underway without the mixing and mingling provided by the traditional scientific conference?

Joerg Heber does not reject the significant role of such meetings.  On the contrary, he writes that they will remain an important platform for exchange and is even co-organizing an event for next year.  The change he advocates, though, is to make better-thought-out decisions about the content of such conferences, enriching them as much as possible.  His own approach is “to maximize value by getting some of the best scientists in a field together for a couple of days of intense discussions, because the interactive component is what adds value to a conference.”

Heber also feels that researchers need to be “more selective in their travel”, as the current system is simply unsustainable in environmental terms.  When one’s physical presence is not essential, he suggests that internet streaming of presentations, coupled with Q&A sessions via social networks, could provide a decent approximation of today’s in-the-flesh conference environment.  Perhaps first steps towards collaboration could be taken in this way and only when plans were more advanced would teams travel to meet one another.

When travel to a meeting is justified, organizers can still take steps to ensure the event is as green as possible.  Last year, for example, Germany’s Federal Environment Agency published its Guidelines for the Sustainable Organisation of Events.  The document addresses questions of travel, consumption of resources (energy, water, paper), procurement of products and services in environmentally friendly ways, as well as the fact that organizing a sustainable event often proves more cost-effective in the end.

Ultimately, the system will need to evolve in such a way that environmental and budgetary impacts are reduced, without being punitive to the very researchers who are its raison d’être.  It will take some creativity and open-mindedness to find solutions, and time to change the expectations of the scientific community.  But what we don’t need, surely, is to call a meeting.