Do the best academics fly more?

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

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17 July 2019

Seth Wynes

Malte Mueller/Getty Images

Academic flying is often justified on the basis that international conferences and travel are important to the production of new knowledge.

As such, travel brings researchers into contact with new ideas, allows them to share and refine their own ideas and therefore improves the quality of their research.

However, 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:

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

A sign of success?

Flying comes at a huge environmental cost, and yet many researchers view it as crucial to their success.

Using the University of British Columbia as a case study, we investigated whether the faculty at our institution who flew the most were also the most successful. We found that beyond a small threshold, there was no relationship between scholarly output and how much an individual academic flies.

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).

There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps it’s possible to be successful even in a geographic island like Vancouver (which is more isolated than most European cities or even cities on the East coast). After all, there’s still plenty of networking and research to be done close to home or by video-conferencing.

In addition to this, some researchers may fly so much that the benefit they gain by networking is negated by the lost opportunity to start a new project, or finally submit that long neglected research paper.

We certainly did find evidence that researchers fly more than is likely necessary. In the portion of our sample composed of only full-time faculty, we categorized 10% of trips as “easily avoidable”. These were trips like going to your destination and flying back in the same day or flying a short distance trip that could have been replaced by ground travel.

Interestingly, green academics (those studying subjects like climate change or sustainability) not only had the same level of emissions from air travel as their peers, but they were indistinguishable in the category of "easily avoidable" trips as well.

But success isn’t just measured by scholarly output, and so we also checked for relationships between how much academics flew and their annual salaries (which are publicly available). We did find a significant relationship: people who fly more, get paid more. Causation though, could lie in the other direction.

Prestigious scholars with more grant money may have extra funds with which to book air travel, for instance.

However, the days when grant money is the only limitation on the number of flights you can book may be drawing to an end. Aviation’s global share of emissions is expected to increase rapidly, and there are no easy techno-fixes to prevent this growth from ruining our chances to meet climate targets.

Carbon footprints not equal

Addressing air travel may actually require people to fly less, especially high-flying academics who sometimes emit more greenhouse gases per year from flying than their neighbours do through commuting, eating and powering their homes.

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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.

So what to do with this information?

I’ve spoken with many early career researchers who are concerned that they need to fly frequently not only to network, but also to attend job interviews across the continent. If institutions begin curtailing air travel they probably ought to consider issues of equity, including those brought about by seniority.

Our research, for instance, found that graduate students and postdocs produced about three times less emissions from air travel than fully tenured professors on average. Female academics also traveled less in our sample than their male colleagues, which is a consistent finding in the literature.

Assuming that institutions and individuals want to reduce emissions in an equitable manner, what steps can they take? And what will the future of travel and networking in academia look like in a carbon constrained world? Here are a few ideas:

  • more videoconferencing, especially for events that rely less on face to face interactions (like invited talks)
  • changes in promotion requirements so that academics don’t have to decide between delivering an international talk and getting a raise
  • more events, meetings and research packed into fewer, longer trips
  • more ground based travel (and hopefully more freedom from institutions to take the extra time needed in order to avoid air travel)
  • disincentives on frequent flying, such as an internal flight fee that contributes to carbon offsetting projects

At many universities there is a groundswell of support for addressing emissions from academic air travel. Some research centres are prioritizing ground travel, while faculty at others have agreed to set personal emissions reductions targets. Many initiatives are still in early stages, but we can expect them to gain traction as the sense of urgency driven by a changing climate intensifies.

For those who feel unwanted pressure to fly but would rather spend time close to their family, or for those trying to lead by example with a low-carbon lifestyle, these initiatives may come as a welcome relief.

Our research suggests that flying less doesn’t have to compromise the impact of one’s research. In the world of air travel and climate change, this is a rare bright spot worth noting.

This post draws on the author’s co-authored article, "Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success," published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Seth Wynes is a PhD candidate, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia and studies climate change mitigation, investigating the ways that personal behaviours can contribute to reducing emissions.

This article was originally published on the LSE Blog. Read the original article.

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