Monday, July 2, 2018

The benefits and costs of academic travel. Or "there and back again; again and again"

As I sit here in an airport lounge en route to yet another far-flung destination, it seems appropriate to finally write a long-planned blog post – about my carbon cost. Like nearly all other academics, I feel strongly that climate change is perhaps the most pressing problem of our time, requiring serious societal change to reduce and offset carbon emissions. Yet, like many of those very same academics, I travel an insane amount – usually on airplanes. Thus, I – and many other academics – are potentially subject to the criticisms summarized recently in a Huffington Post opinion piece “The Climate Change Hypocrisy of Jet Setting Academics.” This year will be my most extreme travel year yet, involving 25 discrete trips from my home in Montreal to somewhere outside the province of Quebec. The result is obviously a huge carbon cost on a per-individual basis. So why do I do it from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis.

My 2018
Benefits – professional and personal

Travel generates a huge professional benefit on numerous levels. First, it increases exposure and visibility of your research, which is important in this day-and-age of “vastly more papers published than one could possibly read” in which it is hard for any one researcher to stand out. Traveling to give talks and seminars makes more people aware of your work, which can increase citations and facilitate recruitment of new students to your laboratory. Second, travel often leads to new collaborations and group perspective papers and the like. Third, in a number of research fields including mine, travel for field work is obviously essential for conducting high-quality research and for helping one’s students to do the same. Fourth, much academic travel provides a service to the community. Invitations to travel somewhere are nearly always because a group of students or professors sincerely wants to meet you and hear about your research. Participating in grant evaluation panels and editorial board meetings are a way of giving back to the academic community. And, of course, personal benefits can accrue through the enjoyment of seeing different places, engaging with different cultures, and experiencing different parts of the environment.

Costs – personal and professional

Travel can have considerable costs that are not directly environment-related. First, it takes time away from family, which can be hard on relationships in any number of ways. (Although I try to bring my family when possible.) Second, it means time away from academic duties at your home institution, which can be hard on your students and colleagues. (Although I try to travel when such costs are minimal.) Third, it is difficult physically as prolonged confinement to airplane seats can lead to a number of either serious or simply annoying physical problems. (Nowadays I usually upgrade to “preferred seating.”) Fourth, travel can be expensive and can take away from your ability to invest in other types of research costs. (Although most of my travel is paid for by third parties.) However, the main motivation for this post was to consider the environmental costs of extensive travel – most obviously carbon inputs to the atmosphere.

Rationalizations for carbon footprints

A simple “bean-counting” rationalization for not worrying too much about the environmental costs of extensive travel is the argument that – as an individual – I will not have any impact on the environment even if I were to fly constantly for the rest of my life. That is, the amount of carbon that I am personally responsible for adding to the atmosphere is such a small part of the whole that subtracting it would not have any measurable impact.

A “zero-sum” rationalization is that, for most of my travel, I am filling a slot that – if I didn’t go – would simply be filled by someone else. That is, seminars will be given by someone, working groups will be populated by someone, and so on. If I don’t go, someone else will simply travel and take my place. IN such cases, staying home would not change the average environmental cost as it would just be attributed to someone else.

A “bigger picture” justification would be that academic travel often relates to study and understanding the environment, in which case the carbon cost of travel is more than offset by the benefit to the environment. For instance, a decent amount of my travel is associated with environmental NGOs where we provide advice on biodiversity science to governments and through which we promote the understanding of biodiversity to the public. Some of my colleagues who study global warming actually travel an incredible amount in efforts to reduce carbon inputs to the environment, with the argument being that their own contribution to carbon emissions is more than offset by their global contribution to carbon emission reductions.

Which brings us to the “hypocrisy” criticism. That is, even if all of the above rationalizations valid, they don’t account for the fact that it just “looks bad.” That is, how can a person advocating for everyone on Earth to reduce their carbon footprint not do so themselves. It reduces their credibility and seems elitist and selfish. Of course, this criticism does not have a clear defense except in light of the above three arguments: bean-counting, zero-sum, and bigger-picture.

In the end

So how does all of this pan out for me personally. For starters, I would love to travel less as I would rather spend more time at home. So why do it then? In point of fact, most of my travel falls into the “service” and “zero-sum” categories, where I am giving seminars, participating in workshops, helping NGOs, evaluating grants, visiting my students in the field, teaching and administering programs, helping friends and colleagues with symposia and conferences, and so on. The simple truth is that someone wanted my help, asked nicely for it, and I felt obliged (in a non-resentful way) to participate. Once committed to a new trip, I try to make the most of it.

I first try to maximize the professional benefits, especially by participating fully in the activities; and also the personal benefits, often by tacking a day onto the end of the trip to go see penguins or gorillas or elephants or whatever. I am also “collecting” rock climbing gyms around the world – and have now been to 33 of them. Recently, I have started taking my teenage daughters with me on trips to foster their enthusiasm for science and nature – this year’s trip to the Galapagos has them both talking about wanting to be biologists. MY hope, then is to try to minimize the costs and maximize the benefits. One might argue that such costs would be much lower through remote participation in workshops and meetings and so on. I also often take this approach, as do all academics (thank you Skype!) but many of the benefits require face-to-face interaction.

In closing, I want to sincerely thank everyone who has invited me for a seminar or workshop or meeting. I have enjoyed each one immensely – and this post should not be construed as a complaint in any way. In fact, I look forward to interactions on every one of my upcoming trips. (Although next year I will do a short sabbatical and will try to travel less – we shall see.) I also want to point out that while travel helps professionally, it is not NECESSARY for a successful career in academia. Many well known academics actually travel very little, and so no one should feel compelled to engage in professional travel at the expense of personal wellbeing and family harmony.

Andrew’s 2018 travel schedule – in temporal order
Asilomar (California) -  conference
Santa Barbara (California) – working group
Corvallis (Oregon) – seminar
Gamboa (Panama) – teaching and administration
Halifax (Nova Scotia) – seminar
Galapagos – field work
Oulanka (Finland) – workshop/symposium
Trondheim (Norway) – seminar
Fayetteville (Arkansas) – seminar
Kingston (Rhode Island) – seminar
Lexington (Kentucky) – seminar
Millbrook (New York) – seminar
Victoria (British Columbia) – family trip
Kenai and Anchorage (Alaska) – field work
Brussels (Belgium) – grant evaluation panel
Kyoto (Japan) – conference
Guelph (Ontario) – conference
Waimea (Hawaii) – symposium
Frankfurt (Germany) – working group
Smithers (British Columbia) – family trip
Montpellier (France) – conference
Brussels (yes, again) – grant evaluation panel
Smithers (British Columbia) – family trip
Oeiras (Portugal) – symposium
Philadelphia (Pennsylvannia) – seminar


  1. A very interesting post. I think it can be useful to think in terms of what the cost of an activity would be if we had a proper, comprehensive carbon tax as we ought to have. A round-trip flight between New York City and San Francisco generates almost one metric ton of CO2, according to the NYT (, and a reasonable consensus for the "social cost of carbon" (the damage done by CO2 emissions, which would be the basis for a good carbon tax) is around $100/ton, from what I've read (not sure whether that is also metric tons, sigh). So useful questions can be: Will the good that comes from this activity outweigh that cost? If that cost were added in to the cost of the flight, would those paying for this activity still consider it worthwhile? And is there any other way this would could proceed (such as over Skype), and do the inconveniences and disadvantages of that alternative outweigh the cost of the travel emissions? Maybe the answers to all of these questions would still indicate that all of your travel is justified; but it is good to ask the questions nevertheless.

    I am not a big believer in carbon offsets, personally, but some people do advocate them. If they work (a big if), you could compensate for your travel by paying money for offsets, and you could insist upon offsets being included in all travel reimbursements that you receive from third parties, and pay for offsets from your grants when you're paying for the travel yourself, and so forth. Again, I am pretty skeptical about this as a solution; but perhaps it is better than nothing, at least inasmuch as it raises awareness of the issue, and might provide some disincentive to taking trips that really aren't necessary.

    Finally, I wonder what will happen when all of this becomes involuntary. When, because of carbon taxes and/or societal pressure, having thousands of evolutionary biologists all converge upon Montpellier, France, for a conference is simply no longer viable. I think that day is probably coming. We will simply have to find new and better ways of working together without travel, at that point. Maybe, recognizing that that reality is probably coming anyhow (either that or we may drive our whole civilization into the ground), perhaps we can and should work toward finding solutions now?

    But I, too, fly too much. I decided not to go to Montpellier, because it felt too far to be justifiable. But I've taken several airplane flights already this year, and plan to take several more. So... hypocrisy, yes. I think the heart of the matter is that this is a problem that requires a collective solution: carbon taxes. Let us all advocate for that as loudly as we can. Once such a tax is in place, the proper changes and solutions will happen automatically, through the free market. Until such a tax is in place, we will continue on a path to destruction, regardless of how much we fret over our individual actions. If anybody wants to know an excellent organization that promotes the idea of a price on carbon in a bipartisan, constructive fashion, I recommend Citizens' Climate Lobby.

    1. Oh, one other thing I meant to write. Perhaps one thing we could try to work towards as a solution is the idea of big research institutes that concentrate people from a given field in one place. At the extreme end, one could imagine a single worldwide institute for evolutionary biology where all of us worked. A worldwide conference of evolutionary biologists would then just be a walk down the hall. :-> Obviously there are a great many problems with that vision; people want to stay in their home country, people want to be close to their field sites, people are needed to teach at universities, and a million other problems. But maybe there is room to move along the continuum a bit in that direction. Universities that specialize in a particular field, with a very large faculty in that field, while other universities do not attempt to compete in that field at all. National centers of research for a given field, even if not a single international center. And so forth. I don't know; but it seems worth thinking about. Again, as climate change gets worse and perhaps a hefty price gets put on carbon, such decisions may shift from being voluntary to being forced moves. So maybe we ought to start thinking of them more as forced moves now. OK, over and out.

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