There have been an increasing number of voices over the last few years raising questions about the carbon footprint of academia, particularly of conferences, and a trickle of research papers seeking to quantify the problem, and understand what drives the need, but mainstream discussion has been slow coming. If you look at the travel policies of most universities, while keen to explain their policy on cycle parking, or public transport (which are, of course, very important things), they are generally silent on the topic of air travel.
Against this background, it was refreshing and thought provoking to participate in a one-day symposium on Reducing Academic Flying, organised by Matt Watson (Geography) and Stephen Allen (Management School), held in ICOSS in early November. The meeting fielded a range of excellent speakers from across the academic disciplines and across the world. In keeping with the topic of the meeting, non-UK participants delivered their presentations remotely and, in addition to those physically present at the meeting, another 100 or so people attended remotely, both hearing the presentations and contributing questions and discussion. The meeting was run using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, excellently supported on the technical side by Elevate’s Tom Foster.
Presentations and discussions ranged across questions about why we fly, both in terms of understanding how the cultural framework of academia builds in expectations about travel and in terms of how practicalities bear on us differently depending on our circumstances (no ‘Eurostar option’ in New Zealand!). Understanding these issues is key to being able to devise intelligent and equitable policies for flight reduction. More practical topics also included the big challenge of how institutions collect accurate information on travel (if we have no data how do we know if we are improving?), and alternative ways of addressing some of the activities, such as conferences, that generate aviation miles (multi-hub semi-virtual conferencing - yes, can work!). And, throughout, participants were not afraid to raise difficult issues, including reflection on what it means to society if academia continues with business as usual (violence by another name?).
The talks and discussions exposed some of the complexities of addressing the problem of reducing air travel and, whilst there are clearly no easy solutions, started to unpack some of these complexities. Until we have these honest conversations we cannot start to design workable solutions. As the University moves into some of the tough discussions engendered by the forthcoming sustainability strategy, it was a stimulating experience to spend the day with a group of people who are thinking hard, and care deeply, about this particular element of the climate challenge we face.
The speakers all kindly agreed to make their presentations available and, with thanks to Mike Henline for editing the videos, Tom Foster for technical support, and to Matt, Stephen and all the speakers and participants, we are very pleased to be able to make the symposium talks available on the CNU webpages. They can be found in ‘Resources’ > ‘Reducing Academic Flying’. Have your thoughts provoked, share the link with colleagues, perhaps even respond, and let's help make these conversations happen.