Grounded and sensible

Like many others, I have become increasingly aware of my impact on the world in recent years. Flights are regarded as an important part of academic work, but there is a price that comes along with them – a price many are now starting to understand fully, and to resist.

There are two primary reasons for academics to fly: for academic meetings, and for international conferences. To advance our academic careers, we are expected to demonstrate that we have an international reputation by participating in conferences and presenting all over the world. As our academic careers advance, the pressure to travel often increases. Talking with more senior colleagues, I came across examples of academics being expected to travel long haul for a single meeting.

Important as it may be, I see the price of these expectations as too high. Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions; I find it difficult to continue as usual and overlook all the evidence that demonstrates the harm flying does. I believe that academics, and particularly scientists, need to lead by example. Since we have better access to the data, and the tools to understand it, we have the responsibility to act on what it tells us.

It’s not just that, though. As a mother of young children, I see that this practice excludes people who cannot fly as easily. People with caring responsibilities and those with visa or budget restrictions are marginalised if they are not offered a suitable alternative for communicating and cooperating internationally. Making academic success dependent on regularly flying to other countries is simply not inclusive.

The last time I flew long haul was in 2018 to Singapore. It was a particularly important event career-wise, but not wanting to leave my 8-month-old baby for a week, I took her with me. I remember being disappointed that not only was I not given the option to participate from a distance, I could not even watch the lectures from a nearby room while I cared for my baby.

Fortunately, things are changing for the better. Just before the pandemic paused international gatherings, I was invited to give a talk in Germany. The organisers advocated for travelling by train, rather than flying, and offered to pay the costs. This was incredibly encouraging, and thankfully we now see more of these options for academics.

These days, many more events are managed online or in a hybrid way. More colleagues expect and plan hybrid meetings, and a significant part of the networking that once happened at conferences and other events is now done on social media. I have gotten more invitations and collaboration opportunities from my Twitter presence than from traditional routes.

When I am invited to participate in an event, I ask for an online option. I do not rule out travel altogether, but my journey needs to be by train, and even then, it must be worthwhile. I expect to achieve more in one journey, and I will not make a quick visit to do something that can be achieved in other ways.

I am not alone in this approach. More academics, both junior and senior, are adopting this approach. One example, close to home, is the Oxford University Flyingless Group – a group of staff and students who are advocating for a shift away from dependence on aviation at the University and beyond.

In my field of neuroscience, we should fly less, lead sustainable laboratories, and use our understanding of behavioural psychology to expand these changes to the broader population.