Travels (finally arriving at the European Researchers’ Night 2021)
The European Researchers’ Night takes place every year on the third Friday of September, on about 60 sites in Europe. This map presents the French cities that took part in it on September 24th, 2021. I travelled from my current research institute for this Academic year (ICAR, at the ENS de Lyon) to my home town of Le Mans as Lyon didn’t host a Researchers’ Night event while Le Mans did. As it always happens when you really are expected to arrive on time somewhere, the trip – that usually takes 3 hours – ended up lasting 6 hours and half (at some point the train was stranded on a beautiful countryside while the driver was repairing whatever was preventing us from proceeding with the trip). Rail adventures were all the more fitting as the overarching theme of this year’s Researchers’s Night was… “Travels”.
The themes vary every year; they are conceived to provide orientation on the kind of research to present and how to present it. It really stirred the imagination of the team in charge of organizing the event (at my University, it is the Service Culture Scientifique) this year, with a series of formats like the “postcards” where we had to send out pictures of our various field trips, conferences, workshops, etc. (granted: there were not that many in covid times, but they were all the more cherished!), or the “researcher’s suitcase” (the suitcase containing artefacts that could be presented to a small group of visitors and serve as explanation anchors for a research topic or methodology, see also here for the webpage). But the traditional booths were also at the core of the event, with research institutes presenting their equipment, experiments, posters, books…
Since the topic was “Travels”, I had initiated a booth on the environmental impact of research mobility. A small group had formed some time ago at my University trying to raise awareness for a series of issues related to the footprint of research activities in general, a process in which the Service Culture Scientifique had been involved from the onset. While this group had been working mostly on a questionnaire aiming at getting a clearer image of the carbon impact of research practices at the University, we tried another approach at the booth, targeting especially the role and impact of mobility.
It was in fact the perfect opportunity to give the communication campaign a start which I had been working on with colleagues from labos1point5 and from écoinfo for a few months now. The goal of the posters we developed is to make researchers realize that professional travels actually require to be thought through in terms of their impact on the environment.
The first poster presents the carbon footprint of a Paris-Berlin return trip (by plane, by car, by train), compared with the footprint of a videoconference or audioconference attendance. The overall framework situates the corresponding carbon output within the scope of the individual carbon emissions per person per year that cannot be exceeded in order for the planet temperature to remain under +1.5 °C. While on this first poster, the flight to and from Berlin accounts for half of the yearly total, on the second poster – presenting figures for a Paris-Sydney trip -, the limit of the yearly emission per capita is largely exceeded by the plane trip.
The goal of these posters is to provide information for decision-making at individual level as well as at research institute level. While videoconferencing has a much smaller carbon footprint than any form of physical travel for the kind of trips on which we based our posters (things are different for shorter distances depending on the attendance), it was in no way our goal to advocate for videoconferencing as the single best solution to the whole issue. We spent a lot of time not only looking for reliable ways to assess the measure of the carbon footprints in all the scenarios envisioned, but also trying to find the best way to present the information so that it would not be interpreted as “Just do videoconferences and all will be good”. To that end, we provided additional information specifically on the impact of videoconference (it turned out to be particularly tricky, since measuring the carbon footprint of videoconferences is anything but simple). And since we wanted to put all the options on the table, the last line of the poster suggests: “I don’t participate in the conference”, for a carbon footprint of 0 kg.
Discussions of these posters at the European Researchers’ Night involved colleagues and curious visitors, but also – actually, mostly – PhD candidates as well as B.A. and M.A. students, who are in general particularly interested in the topic of environmental footprint. Many turned to the booth asking: “What are the figures? What should we do?”, and the whole evening was spent unfolding the different layers involved in these questions. Because the main message was that while we know what not to do, we still don’t really know what to do… let’s take for instance my yearly budget at my University: 500 EUR to attend conferences. If I decide to go to a conference by train (I’m a germanist, so it’s likely to take place in Germany), I will be able to attend one conference in the year. If I go by plane, I might manage 3. In the current organization of Academic mobility, train tickets are much more expensive than plane tickets. And choosing to go to one conference instead of three can have a serious impact in terms of career. At that point in the discussion, PhD candidates were starting to sweat nervously, because it seemed that there was really no good solution for them in sight. I strongly argued for them to engage in a discussion at research institute level and not consider the carbon footprint at their own individual level, but as part of the institute’s output. I pointed to the carbon footprint calculator for research institutes developed by labos1point5 as a first step to have a discussion basis at research institute level, talked about the hybrid conference model we are working on the for DH 2023 conference with regional hubs and ways of integrating new formats for young scholars to consolidate their networks… there are definitely things that can be done beyond institutional greenwashing, but they require patience and a good knowledge of institutions, administrations and funding schemes.
At the end of the discussion rounds in which I exposed these (and other) arguments, the emotion I felt in the eyes of PhD candidates and students was incredibly moving. Part of it was them just being thankful for engaging in this issue at all. And part of it was sheer incredulity – how could someone old enough to be their mother be the one to move them to action on a topic like that? I felt old, in a way. But also young enough no to let them down, and I don’t ask for much more than that.