TALES OF A NON-FLYING RESEARCHER
By Wolmet Barendregt — – Some people may wonder: Is it really possible to be a non-flying researcher? As I consider myself to be one, I will use this blogpost to tell you about my journey.
At the end of the year 2000, I fully got aware about the massive impact flying has on climate change. We were on a plane back from our honeymoon in Ecuador when my new husband mentioned this, and I was unable to shed this sinking feeling that our trip was actually contributing to the destruction of the beautiful nature we had just visited and was going to make life harder for the people living there. Together, we made the (unconscious) decision not to fly for holidays anymore and we found out that there are actually so many wonderful places that can be reached without flying, that we never regretted this decision.
About two years later, I started as a PhD student in the department of Industrial Design at TU/e. As a researcher, it seems part of the job is flying to conferences. However, although I had not fully decided that flying was unacceptable for my professional life, I felt more and more that this distinction between my professional and my personal identity was not so easy to make. I thus opted for taking the train to conferences, and luckily, my supervisors never objected to this.
As a PhD student I visited conferences in e.g., Preston, Zürich, and Rome without flying. Of course, those trips sometimes took some more time than if I would have flown, but this time was usually well-spent on reading, preparing my presentations or just thinking.
“An unexpected advantage of my decision not to fly was actually that I sometimes opted for writing a journal paper instead of flying to conference to disseminate my work.”
This paid off when I applied for a permanent position after a two-year postdoc in Sweden. The assessment report for this position put me on top of the candidate list, mainly because of my hIa (h-index adjusted for academic age and discipline). Indeed, a paper by Wynes, Donner, Tannason, and Nabors (2019) confirms that flying does not necessarily lead to a higher academic impact. They investigated the influence of career stage, research productivity, field of expertise, and other variables on academic air travel and associated emissions among 705 travelers at the University of British Columbia and found no relationship between air travel emissions and metrics of academic productivity including hIa.
After advancing my career and becoming an Associate Professor at the University of Gothenburg in 2013 I felt it that it was more difficult to completely avoid flying. Being a primary investigator in several European projects required me to visit project meetings, and while I always did my best to take the train (e.g., from Gothenburg to Birmingham, Brussels, and Paris) it was not always possible (e.g., a project meeting in Athens). The summer of 2018 however, which, as you may recall was particularly hot and dry, pushed me over the brink. I signed the pledge at NoFlyClimateSci.org, a group of Earth scientists, academics, and members of the public who either don’t fly or who fly less. Although signing this pledge does not necessarily mean that one promises to never fly, it worked for me in this way, and it made my life easier.
“Finally, I identified myself as a non-flying researcher, and I dared to vocalize my intention to never fly.”
When I thus applied for a position as an Assistant Professor at the TU/e again, in the beginning of 2019, I openly told the hiring committee about my intention. I am happy and grateful that I, despite this resolution, got the opportunity to come back to my alma mater.
When I found out about the Low Carbon Travel Initiative at the TU/e in October, I thus immediately contacted them to give them my support. Currently, the group mostly consists of PhD students, which I think is somewhat surprising, because we, as more senior researchers, should set an example. According to a thesis written be Steve Westlake, “[l]eading by example by giving up flying appears to send a powerful and effective message that, in combination with structural changes in transport provision and different policy signals from government, could contribute to a shift away from unlimited flying as a social norm, as part of a collective effort to reduce carbon emissions” (Westlake, 2017). Having a clear university policy for sustainable traveling would also be a step in the right direction.
At the end of the day, I think being a non-flying researcher makes me a happier person. I now know that my behavior is line with my values, which removes the dissonance that many people actually feel towards climate change (see e.g., PBS (2019)).
PBS (2019) https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/how-your-brain-stops-you-from-taking-climate-change-seriously
Seth Wynes, Simon D. Donner, Steuart Tannason, Noni Nabors, Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 226, 2019, Pages 959-967, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.04.109.
Steve Westlake, A Counter-Narrative to Carbon Supremacy: Do Leaders Who Give Up Flying Because of Climate Change Influence the Attitudes and Behaviour of Others? (October 2, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3283157 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3283157