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Air-travel in Academia - Powerless Postgraduates | Bridie Davies

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Air travel – one of humanities greatest achievements. Over the last 100 years our world has become more connected than ever; holidays abroad, international business, political unions (and of course discord) have all been made possible by ever cheaper air travel.

One area where cheap air travel has been particularly revolutionary is research.

Once the domain of only the most privileged and well financed (often white male) “explorers”, research that requires field-based study has opened up to a whole new class of scientists. Of course, there have been many changes to the way research is funded globally that have aided this transition. Undoubtedly, academia still has its battles to fight regarding equality and we haven’t quite rooted out colonialism from the way we (the west) practice research abroad.

Nevertheless, air-travel has been a great facilitator of some world-class research and collaborations and has undoubtedly saved lives as a result – scientists with specialist knowledge fly around the globe offering advice and assistance during times of crisis.

As a volcanologist based in the UK it is almost impossible for me to carry out my research without flying. As a geology undergraduate I travelled to Spain and Italy for field courses – now as a PhD student, my study area is Ascension Island which requires 4 flights in total for a round trip via Johannesburg and St Helena.

Map showing my flight paths taken during my PhD so far to Ascension Island, my field site via Johannesburg and St Helena, St Vincent where I took part in a science festival as part of the STREVA project and Chile where I worked as a field assistant in February 2019.

I have also been lucky to assist my supervisor with one of her projects in the Caribbean and act as a research assistant in Chile. As there are no active volcanoes on the UK mainland it is the nature of volcanological study that air-travel is inevitable – and often part of the appeal for young students who love the outdoors.

On top of fieldwork there are the international conferences that postgraduates attend. At this early stage in our careers we are encouraged to network, present our work on the international stage and make new connections and collaborations with researchers from all over the globe. International collaboration is key, and nothing is better than a face to face interaction with one of your field’s superstar scientists at a post-conference meal or poster session. Many of our supervisors have stories of “being in the right place at the right time” to snatch a post-doc position. Our funding even often comes with a budget specifically to allow us to attend an international conference as it is seen as such a key aspect for developing a researcher’s career.

Most of us would be lying if we said we didn’t care about international fieldwork and conferences, we would however also be lying if we said we had no idea of the environmental cost of all these flights. The world is waking up to the true cost of air-travel, Sir David Attenborough has publicly questioned the cheapness of flights and more than ever airlines are keen to publicise their carbon offset schemes where you can simply pay a little more for your flight in order to offset the carbon output of your journey.

Unfortunately, carbon offset schemes are difficult to get right and rarely have a measurable impact on climate. Are we all just sending our money into the void for the sake of a clear conscience? Can the research community justify all those air miles? And can PhD students, with our limited funding and time do anything to reduce our carbon emissions without shooting our own careers in the foot?

Here at UEA, I know of researchers who have taken months away from campus to enable them to travel via cargo ship – often seen as the better option as these ships don’t rely on passengers to travel. If the goods are going anyway adding a passenger doesn’t change the environmental impact. Travel by train to European conferences seems like a feasible green option but again, rail travel is expensive and these greener journeys take days or months rather than hours. I am not sure I could’ve gotten away with a four month round-trip to reach my field site by boat.

Freight ships are a relatively “green” way to travel as these ships will be travelling anyway so there is less of a supply and demand effect than with normal air travel.

In an ideal world we could build carbon offsetting or green travel into research budgets – the scientific community as a whole seems to support the notion of reducing our carbon output and committees are likely to be amenable to awarding funds for such a purpose - but this is almost impossible to do until we have a measurable way to reduce the impact of those unavoidable flights and change our culture to allow longer travel times.

The answer for now seems to lie at the smaller scale – Universities could develop their own carbon offset schemes for employees to buy into, allowing researchers to cost into budgets the money required to support the scheme in a way that has a local net benefit.

As PhD students, we are not involved in setting the budgets for our own research, this decision is usually made long before we even accept the project. What we can do is lobby our supervisors to allow us to take that long train journey, lobby our universities to start researching the best scheme to reduce the carbon-cost of their researchers, and start thinking about which conferences are the most important to attend.

At the end of the day whether we can commit those extra funds and hours to the journey is a decision that many of us may feel is “out of our hands”, but is that just a cop out? At some point someone has to make the travel sacrifice or come up with a measurable way to offset the carbon from these journeys. Can we change the behaviour of our generation of researchers in the hope of saving our planet from the climate emergency?

Change never happens unless someone pushes for it from the bottom, perhaps we as postgraduates not so powerless after all….



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