Fly or die in academia?

Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from ‘Reducing academic flying’, a symposium held at the University of Sheffield.

18 November 2019

Kim Nicholas (Lund University, Sweden) opened her talk with a reminder of the facts of anthropogenic climate change: ‘It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. We can fix it.’ Flying is a major contributor to carbon emissions, while also considered important for a successful academic career. The symposium brought together speakers from a range of disciplines (and locations through virtual participation) to discuss why flying is such a key part of academia, and what might be done to reduce or replace flying.

Johan Gärdebo (KTH, Sweden) described ‘fly or die’ as the new ‘publish or perish’ in academia, with promotions and rewards linked to flying. Flying is good for universities, explained Monika Buscher (Lancaster University), because academic rankings are in part driven by the international visibility of universities. This means that individuals are expected to give keynotes, to network, and to collaborate internationally.

Andrew Glover (RMIT University, Australia) spoke of universities targeting lucrative international student markets. Not only are academics required to fly to recruit students, those that are recruited fly to attend their course, with families and friends potentially visiting throughout the degree. Flying is therefore embedded into university strategies and goes much further than academics attending conferences.

Climate change isn’t the only reason to consider a reduction in academic flying. James Faulconbridge (Lancaster University) described the economic costs of flying, along with the risks involved, and the social costs of being away from family and friends. Gärdebo pointed to the travel ban for some nationalities flying into the US as a reminder that not everyone is able to fly, and Joseph Nevins (Vassar College, USA) spoke of the problematic nature of borders which deny human rights of access to many. There is also a colonial dimension to academic flying, explained Buscher, with funding often going to those in the global North who fly for fieldwork, rather than straight to those who live in proximity to the research site.

All this isn’t to say that many academics don’t enjoy flying or the opportunities it brings. For some, explained Sion Pickering (University of Edinburgh), it is a perk of the job and can be combined with holidaying. Buscher spoke of a compulsion for connection and proximity that many people feel, which is difficult to substitute through other means like Skype. This may particularly be the case for those in remote locations, such as in regional Australia, where flying can reduce feelings of isolation, according to Glover.

If academics are to be convinced that there is little to be lost through a virtual presence, psychologists surely have a role to play in providing that evidence. We would love to hear about studies addressing effectiveness and enjoyment of face-to-face versus tech mediated communication.

Moving away from the assumption of travel

A few academics deciding to reduce or stop their flying clearly isn’t going to solve these issues. Some senior members of staff might publicly pledge not to fly (in many cases having built their career through flying), but Debbie Hopkins (University of Oxford) wondered if this would simply pass the burden onto junior academics who might then fly to see them rather than connecting at a conference. Faulconbridge suggested that simply telling people to travel less won’t cut it. Instead, he called for a fundamental reengineering of universities towards the assumption that people can’t travel. Faulconbridge’s radical ideas included closing overseas campuses, removing international dimensions from reward processes, and completely rethinking what a university looks like.

While we wait for a wholesale change of this kind, there are steps that can be taken in the short term. Faulconbridge suggested less flying faculty, and more local training so that exercises like quality assurance don’t have to be undertaken through international trips. Stuart Capstick (Cardiff University) is currently working on a document that will set thresholds for justifying flight – for example, that it’s more justifiable for a PhD student to fly for a 10 minute conference presentation than a senior academic.

The concept of substituting face-to-face interactions with ICT is inherently problematic, according to Faulconbridge. Collaborations that start over Skype create new networks which eventually require servicing through in-person meetings. But ICT is improving, and Renee Timmers (University of Sheffield) spoke of successes with semi-virtual conference formats. These conferences are distributed in hubs across different locations – one example had five hubs across four continents. Delegates travelled to their local hub, reducing overall travel, and all presentations were live streamed, with remote audiences seeing each other in real time. This required a 24-hour programme to ensure it was truly open to all time zones. Technology requirements were high, but conference fees were used to fund technicians, rather than keynote speakers’ long-haul flights.

Other small steps were suggested at the symposium:

  • Talk to funding bodies about how to incorporate low carbon practices into applications
  • Offer conference discounts for those who don’t fly
  • Focus on local collaborations
  • Pledge to reduce or eliminate flying
  • Travel on the ground where possible
  • Seek funding to develop virtual conference technologies, including funding for supporting infrastructure for those in developing states
  • Ensure web conferences are accessible globally with 24-hour programmes
  • Tap into existing networks including and

The symposium itself was an impressive example of integrating physical and online presence. Speakers from outside of the UK presented virtually, with around 40 delegates participating virtually. Questions for speakers were taken from the room and from online attendees, and during small group discussions the virtual delegates were put into groups and spoke to each other via video camera.

Despite clear evidence of the harm of flying, universities aren’t going to stop academic flying yet. But there are things that individuals can do. Part of the challenge will be persuading them to make a change. Capstick was clear that he felt the ones to push for change should be those with job security, privilege and power: ‘Senior academics, sort yourselves out’.

-       Have you taken any steps yet to reduce your conference flying? Let us know on Twitter @psychmag 
-       Slides and videos from the day are available on the Carbon Neutral University website