Academics fly more than they need to, academics show

Taking fewer flights is one of the most sustainable things a person can do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions — and yet, researchers (even those studying climate change) probably fly more than they should.

For the first time, researchers evaluated the link between observed air travel and academic success, finding no connection between the two. In other words, there’s not much connection between academic success and how often researchers fly — if they choose wisely, researchers could fly less and have equal results.

Flying is bad for the environment. A return flight from New York to Los Angeles is responsible for around 1.5 tons of CO2, which would make up a significant portion of the 20 tons the average American emits every year. However, most researchers view this is a necessary evil, and it’s easy to understand why.

Communication is an essential part of science, and when you’re doing research, it can be difficult to get the word out. Publishing in journals is one thing, but communicating things personally, networking, and seeing what other people are working on — that just can’t be accomplished through a videoconference. It’s easy to understand why so many researchers regard conferences (and traveling) as such an important part of their profession.

Furthermore, conferences are about communicating results (even preliminary results) and given the current publishing system, there are very few alternatives for this.

However, the new study shows that at least in some cases, flying to conferences isn’t really necessary.

In a new study, Seth Wynes and colleagues London School of Economics found that beyond a certain level, there is no clear relationship between the amount of travel undertaken by academics and the quality of their research in terms of productivity and the production of high-quality papers.

“Networking, attending conferences and delivering lectures should give your ideas an edge, help you to disseminate your research, and result in higher quality papers that get more citations. And the fastest way to do all of these things in person is to fly,” writes Wynes in a blog post. “But even when accounting for department, position and gender, we found no relationship between how much academics travel and their total citation count or their hIa (a version of h-index adjusted for academic age).”

It’s not like all flying is useless — sometimes, it’s crucial. The study found that some trips were very hard to avoid or replace, but 10% of trips were classified as “easily avoidable”. These were basically the trips where you fly both ways on the same day or short trips that could have been replaced by train or car. Interestingly, in this regard, the travels of those studying sustainability were not different from those in other subjects.

Air travel emissions for 997 individual travelers over 18 months at the University of British Columbia. 121 individuals (dark blue) were responsible for 50% of emissions from the sample. Image credits: Seth Wynes.

In fact, no matter how the researchers looked at the results, they found no competitive edge for people who fly more — something which they admit is pretty surprising.

“These results are not intuitive. Networking, attending conferences and delivering lectures should give your ideas an edge, help you to disseminate your research, and result in higher quality papers that get more citations. And the fastest way to do all of these things in person is to fly. But even when accounting for department, position and gender, we found no relationship between how much academics travel and their total citation count or their hIa (a version of h-index adjusted for academic age).”

As universities face increasing demands to reduce greenhouse emissions, they should look to ways to manage academic travel more efficiently and equitably.

There was, however, a relationship between emissions and a particular parameter: salary. This correlation remains significant even when controlling for seniority.

So, what do we do with this information? For starters, it’s important to be aware of this and try to plan things accordingly. Not all trips are necessary, and for short flights especially, a train can present a decent alternative. Videoconferencing can also be used for events that don’t rely on face interactions, and more events and meetings can also be packed into fewer and longer trips.

Lastly, Wynes suggests implement disincentives on frequent flying, such as an internal flight fee that contributes to carbon offsetting projects.

The study has been published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

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About Mihai Andrei

Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.

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