The week of responsible research

Responsible research, sustainable science, aware academia. No matter which alliteration you choose, considering the environmental impact of your research sounds a bit meaningless, like dynamic synergy.

But is it?  If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense for climate researchers to think about the climate footprint of their research.  The two main pros for this are that:
a)  we obviously need to reduce global carbon emissions right now and everyone has to do their part, but also that
b) climate scientists will be more well respected if we lead by example. Wouldn’t you have less faith in your doctor if she was a smoker, or put less trust in your architect if he lived in a ugly house?

Many people agree with this idea that climate researchers should do what they can to reduce their carbon emissions, in their personal and professional lives. Basically this means taking fewer flights and eating less meat. These are behavioural changes that everyone should be doing anyway, it’s just that climate scientists have the inside word on what will happen if we don’t.

However, there is also a valid counter argument that questions why climate scientists should be more proactive that other areas of the community. Paraphrasing one of the comments from said counter arguments above: Why should climate scientists not fly at all, when oil magnates and other losers like that fly all the time?

The other cons are that:
a) face to face meetings and conferences are much MUCH more valuable than online conferences or phone calls, meaning better climate science which is good for the planet, and
b) by changing our behaviour in this way, climate scientists can be seen as becoming political, which can also undermine our reputation. I’m using the first person here because I consider myself in the climate research community, even if my work is not at the coal face (HAHA) of climate change impacts.

When I sat down to write about environmentally responsible research I thought that this important idea was a relatively new topic of conversation in the research community. It was not really discussed when I was in Australia, and it is certainly not considered at my current university.

But of course, this discussion has been going on for a while. The Tyndall Centre in the UK published a working paper on responsible climate research earlier in the year, and the EU’s Climate Joint Programming Initiative has also started developing policy guidelines for future projects.

However, it is difficult to separate, to my eye at least, the jargon from the action.

Last week, for example, I attended a short workshop in Madrid that included several presentations that discussed the importance of reducing the carbon emissions of  climate science. While the presentations were well received, the actions of the workshop did not match the message.

There was only bottled water available for attendees, hardly any vegetarian options, and no information provided to the (European only) participants about the many high speed trains that stop in Madrid each day. OK, we are in Spain, where it is hard to avoid jamón, but it felt pretty hypocritical to be served a plate of meat directly after an inspirational speech about reducing flight and meat consumption.

I guess, like all behavioural changes, reducing the carbon footprint of climate research needs to be supported at both ends: both by individual actions and by high-level strategies that encourage change. If I can borrow some of that jargon for just a minute, a “bottom-up” and “top-down” approach.

For the record, I attended the workshop last week by catching two trains each way. I brought my own water bottle, tried to take as much of the free food as I could so it didn’t go to waste, and walked to and from the meeting each day. Now, am I a tight arse, or a climate scientist walking the talk of lowering carbon emissions? Who can really say for sure…



3 thoughts on “The week of responsible research

  1. At least in the Northern parts of Europe it is an old discussion. Having studied environmental sciences, what I see as enormously important is that climate change is a classical example of a tragedy of the commons. Individual actions may signal you see the problem as important, but does not solve the tragedy. Solving a tragedy of the commons needs a change to the incentives for everyone. For details see my post on travelling to scientific conferences from beginning this year.


    • Thanks for sharing your post Victor! I think this comes down to personality differences in many ways. IMO, we are defined by our actions and so I feel very guilty every time I fly now, regardless of whether it makes a small difference to the carbon total or not. But that’s how I feel as a person, not as a scientists. And I can understand the other side too, that big changes need to happen everywhere.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do my best to hide it, but I am a person too. 😉

        Personally, I also do quite a lot. My environmental footprint is not bad for someone from Europe. This shows that you take the problem seriously and it shows that the future behaviour is perfectly possible while enjoying a good life. However, before I call on others to do the same, I feel I need to be able to argue that it solves to the problem.


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