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Leading academics share their flying habits: »Basically, I hate flying«

Climate change — Some of the University of Copenhagen’s most cited scholars reckon that placing a limit on how much faculty may fly will affect their research

The University of Copenhagen’s plans to reduce the amount of flying done by faculty is, at best, a defensive measure.

To be sure, the school’s Green Campus 2020 sustainability strategy calls for a 65% reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions from transport per full-time equivalent, compared with 2006 levels, but the target for air travel is to limit emissions to a 1% annual increase — this, in light of the fact that 90% of the university’s carbon pollution stems from air travel.

Academics fly a lot. A real lot. For the administration, that means making some hard choices about how far the school should go to keep faculty and staff on the ground.

It’s something of a no-win situation for the university. On the one hand, it wants to be a leading international academic institution that increasingly collaborates with universities abroad. But, on the other hand, it has an obligation to reduce its carbon emissions on all fronts. Jens Friis Lund, a professor of political ecology, has gone so far as to suggest that the school has a »particular obligation« to address the effects of global warming.

The administration’s proposal is still forthcoming. In the meantime, we’ve asked some of the university’s most widely cited faculty members — all of whom participate in the types of partnerships the university would like to see more of — what they’ve done to reduce the amount of flying they do, and what they feel needs to be done if they are to be able to bring it down further.

Jens Lundgren, Professor of Viral Disease

»I’m sick of flying, so I would really like to do it less, but I can’t, since it would give my foreign competitors an advantage. If I could, I’d rather just go to my summerhouse. In and of itself, flying has no redeeming characteristics.«

»I’ve used video conferencing, and it is a viable option in some instances, but there’s no replacement for being there and meeting your peers — and your competitors. You understand people in a whole different way when you can look them in the eye.«

»International partnerships don’t come from nothing, and it’s pretty naïve to think that you can limit the amount of flying people do without it having any consequences. You need to be a step ahead of the competition, and you can only do that if you travel.«

»It hurts the quality of my articles if I co-author them with people I hardly know. That’s why I only get involved in research projects with people I know personally, and have met in person. Meeting someone and establishing a relationship is an important part of modern academic work, which often involves publishing papers that have a long list of co-authors.«

I don’t work 70 or 80 hours a week for the fun of it. I’m searching for the truth, and I think we should be careful not to make life more difficult for people by coming up with all sorts of rules.

Jens Lundgreen, Professor

»When I was a young doctor, I spent a summer driving around Europe in a VW Polo, visiting people I worked with. Some of the meetings I held that summer laid the foundation for relationships that I still have today. It was a good investment — even though my wife might have a different opinion. You need to remember that we’re working with other people.«

»Some people will no doubt able to get away with flying less, and the rules they implement won’t be a problem in some cases, but we also need to make sure that we don’t take people’s initiative away from them. I don’t work 70 or 80 hours a week for the fun of it. I’m searching for the truth, and I think we should be careful not to make life more difficult for people by coming up with all sorts of rules.«

Arne Astrup, department head, Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sport

»There are a lot of things we can do at the University of Copenhagen to address climate change, which is why the administration is working to come up with a climate strategy.«

»Limiting how much academics can fly creates some problems; meeting other academics is an important way for us to keep research moving forward.«

A few years ago, I held a series of lectures in Israel by video. It worked fine, and as the technology has improved, its potential has grown.

Arne Astrup, department head

»Personally, I have cut back on the amount of international travel I do, and begun using things like Skype more. If someone invites me to hold a lecture, I recommend someone to them who lives closer. A few years ago, I held a series of lectures in Israel by video. It worked fine, and as the technology has improved, its potential has grown. In addition to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, travelling less saves time and money, but that comes at the expense of personal relationships.«

Merete Nordentoft, Professor of Psychiatry

»I fly a lot. I never fly domestically, and I try to fly as little as possible in Europe, but only rarely do I succeed. I took the train from Paris to Basel not so long ago, but otherwise traveling by train isn’t a viable alternative to flying given all the transfers and longer travel time.«

»I fly a lot in connection with appearances I’ve been invited to make. I need to accept them; it’s a part of my work.«

»I don’t think it’s easy [to cut back on flying without it having an impact on research]. For example, I needed to attend a conference in Warsaw. By train, the trip takes ten hours and by plane, it takes an hour and ten minutes (not including travel time to the airport and check-in time, ed). I just couldn’t spend that much time on travel. When a conference requires that I be there in person, there’s no other option.«

The other day we had a problem with the sound that meant whenever anyone spoke it was accompanied by a high-pitched whining. I hope that teleconferencing gets easier as the technology improves.

Merete Nordentoft, Professor of Psychiatry

»I am a part of a European consortium for the time being. We teleconference and video conference using Skype, but that’s not optimal. Improved technology would make a difference. Even just a meeting between someone in Aarhus and someone in Copenhagen requires a lot of fine tuning before you can get started. The other day we had a problem with the sound that meant whenever anyone spoke it was accompanied by a high-pitched whining. I hope that teleconferencing gets easier as the technology improves.«

»Video conferencing is adequate for much of what I need to accomplish with my research partners. I agree that you need to know the people you are working with, but once you’ve met them you can often skip meeting them in person. Just recently I had a Skype conference with two of my partners in London who I know well. Things went fine, even though we were meeting to sort out a serious issue.«

»What would make the biggest difference would be a high-speed rail network throughout all of Europe. I would never fly to the Netherlands if I could get there by train in under six hours. Instead, I’d sit comfortably on the train and work on an article. I’d also take a night train to Paris, if there was one.«

»Basically, I hate flying. It’s stressful and you can’t get comfortable. You don’t expect you’ll be delayed, but, in reality, anything can happen. I remember once I had to sleep on a bench in Madrid because my flight was cancelled.«

»If there were a limit on the amount I could fly, I might very well be affected by it. Last month I did an extreme amount of travelling; I had appearances in five different countries. If the limit had been in place I wouldn’t have been able to make those appearances. I’d find that hard to accept. It’s important to build up your network, partner with new people and make a name for yourself in your field.«

Lars Juhl Jensen, Group Leader, Disease Systems Biology Programme

»I generally travel for one of four different reasons:«

»1. To take part in grant meetings. As a Horizon 2020 and NIH grant recipient, I’m expected to attend an annual meeting for each grant. I can send someone on my behalf, but that would do absolutely nothing to reduce the environmental impact.«

»2. To participate as an invited speaker at conferences. I, as a professional, as well as the centre where I work, am judged, in part, on how often we are invited to speak. So these are offers I can’t refuse.«

All of my course material is publicly available, so if someone wants to run one of my classes without me, they are more than welcome to.

Lars Juhl Jensen, Group Leader

»3. To teach PhD and post-doc classes abroad. Some of the classes I teach are held in some pretty hard-to-reach places in South America, Africa and India.«

»One of the main reasons for holding the classes is precisely that it makes much more sense to fly a handful of experts to where the students are than it would be to fly a big group of PhD and post-doctoral students to Europe or the US. This is practical, hands-on instruction, not something you can teach in on-line lectures. All of my course material is publicly available, so if someone wants to run one of my classes without me, they are more than welcome to.«

»4. To participate in evaluation panels. This involves either evaluating applications for funding or being an opponent when someone is defending a dissertation. When funding is allocated in a country — take Germany, for example — it’s often the case that people have conflicts of interest, since they themselves are applying for funding. Someone needs to decide who gets funded, so they wind up bringing in people from other countries. Honestly, I’d be happy not to have to take on the extra work, but, when it comes to defending dissertations at least, most universities require that one of the opponents comes from another country.«

»On top of that there is normally an annual conference in my field (and during which I typically make a presentation). It is held in the US one year, and in Europe the next. In addition, I typically travel about twice a year to meet with my closest European partners.«

»There isn’t much I can do to cut back on how much I fly. In the past, I almost always took the night train and slept in a sleeping car when I travelled to my meetings in southern Germany. I found that was preferable to spending half a day travelling each way, and having to stay an extra night or two at a hotel. But that night train doesn’t run anymore.«

»I try to combine trips, when possible. In January, for example, I held a lecture in Hungary that I was able to combine with some teaching I did at a PhD winter school in southern Poland. Last month, while I was on my way to a conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, I visited someone in New York I am submitting an application with. And, later this year, I’m scheduled to give a lecture in Berlin the day after I take part in a panel evaluating funding applications.«

»The other thing I do is take a day or two off when I travel someplace on business. That means that I sometimes don’t fly on holiday for several years at a stretch.«

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