Sustainability Committee: Time to Rethink Rebooting Speaker Travel for Colloquia

By / par Chris Matzner (University of Toronto)
(Cassiopeia – Winter / hivers 2021)

Virtual colloquia, almost unheard-of before the pandemic, are now familiar necessities. As with all the other pandemic restrictions, most departments have developed plans to do away with them as soon as they can. But this would be a mistake. Now is the perfect time, instead, to take stock of what is gained and lost in the practice of hosting visitors, and to take leadership in optimizing their scientific benefits while minimizing their costs.

What costs, you ask? There’s a lot more to this than the expense of flights, hotel, and meals. Of particular importance are the environmental costs of air travel, and the drastic stakes involved. Consider that:

  • a single Vancouver-Toronto round trip flight emits 1.3 tons CO2, more than an average person emits in an entire year in any of the 66 least-emitting countries.
  • flights, unlike other travel, are nearly impossible to decarbonize.
  • Canada has committed to drastically reduce (by 40-45%) greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.
  • the stakes of climate disruption are devastating. Severe impacts are already felt around the world, including Canada, where extremes of wildfires, heat, floods, and melting were all experienced in just this calendar year. In fact the health of every young person alive today is at risk on multiple fronts, from direct effects of heat waves, smoke inhalation and tick-borne diseases – to indirect ones such as the breakdown of the entire Atlantic meridional circulation and the undermining of food security for billions.
  • these consequences are deeply inequitable, with those least responsible, and those most disadvantaged by the history of colonialism and racism, most directly in harm’s way.
  • these risks, consequences, and inequities compound with each gram of greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted.

With these weighty points in mind, how can we bring back the opportunity for spontaneous interactions while doing our utmost to limit air travel? Luckily, this question has been considered before. To quote the 2020 Long Range Plan:

In light of the crisis, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from our various professional activities must be understood as significant research costs, to be ethically justified, budgeted, and rationed. This can only be done with support and engagement on all levels, by individuals, research institutions, universities, and funding agencies. …

An increased rate of remote participation … even after the pandemic has been resolved … would increase equitable access to those who may have restrictions on travel due to financial, family or other reasons. …

We recommend that organizers of astronomy-related events carefully consider the frequency, timing, and locations of these activities, with the goal of minimizing air travel.

We offer these practical recommendations:

  • For in-person talks, establish a schedule to limit the number of flights – or even better, tally each department’s GHG emissions – in harmony with Canada’s national commitments. Monitor, record, and publicise these plans as well as the details of physical visits, i.e., their emissions and durations.
  • For the limited number of speakers who travel, encourage alternative modes of transportation like trains. Require visits long enough to glean the full benefit of interaction and collaboration – at least a few days, during which interactions between the visitor and local researchers are planned and maximized.
  • Normalize virtual visits and formally recognize that they are just as prestigious as physical visits. Commit to retaining some colloquia as virtual events, and to improving online talks and visits, rather than reverting to the old way of in-person presentations only. Invest funds saved by not having to pay for travel to establish a robust and powerful remote presentation system. Take full advantage of the benefits and opportunities of virtual talks, such as the ability to draw from a worldwide pool of speakers, the vastly reduced costs, and the mitigation of inequities that arise from speakers’ access to childcare, vaccines, teaching relief, and funding.
  • Coordinate visitors with nearby institutions and manage their time well, to maximize the scientific impact and career benefits per flight mile.
  • If invited to give a colloquium in person, ask if a virtual one is an option, or to visit for a longer period.

We trust our concerns will resonate with your own, and look forward to joining you in a virtual colloquium sometime soon!

Further reading:

Sincerely,

The CASCA Sustainability Committee:

Chris Matzner (U.Toronto, Chair)
Julie Bolduc-Duval (Dunlap Inst.),
Mike Chen (Queen’s),
Dennis Crabtree (NRC/DAO),
Vincent Hénault-Brunet (Saint Mary’s),
Marten van Kerkwijk* (U. Toronto),
Roland Kothes (NRC/DRAO),
Martine Lokken (CITA/U.Toronto),
Nadine Manset (CFHT),
Peter Martin* (CITA),
Mubdi Rahman (Sidrat Research),
Joel Roediger (NRC/DAO)
*affiliates

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