For two years, scientists had to keep each other informed of their activities through online platforms. But airports are filling up again and the sky is losing its clearer blue. Will scientists also return to their old ways and fly around the world to conferences? Or can they do without? ‘Sometimes it's just part of the job.’
As a university lecturer it is not necessary to go to conferences often, but as a PhD student you cannot escape it, thinks lecturer in earth and climate sciences at Amsterdam University College (AUC) Bart Verheggen. ‘You would be doing yourself a disservice by not flying. It is very important to go to conferences in person, to build up a network, to be where the interesting discussions take place. That's part of your scientific education.’
In the days when Peter Sloot, professor of complex adaptive systems, was young, you didn't count if you had not spent a few years abroad in a postdoc or other position. ‘Maybe that's still the case. That's the hoop you have to jump through as a young scientist, and it encourages unsustainable behavior.’
Senior Lecturer in Strategy & International Business Arno Kouroula recognized the same problem. ‘The pressure is high to participate in a conference like the Academy of Management, where there are about ten to twelve thousand attendees. It's a kind of big market where you meet everyone. All the journals are there, all the academic associations, all your colleagues.’
Kouroula himself used to fly to conferences an average of twice a year. A few years ago, he got talking to a professor at a conference who offered him a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University in California. Once there, he met the woman he married, ‘and the rest is history, as they say.’
Now he prefers to only attend conferences that can be reached by train, though he expects to still fly occasionally. Kouroula acknowledges that he has a privileged position. ‘I have flown a lot and met people physically. I've met some of them at home, I know their families, we've had dinner together... A PhD student doesn't have that privilege. They start to build up a network and it is more difficult to gain trust if you only see each other in a huge Zoom meeting.’
Lecturer Siri Boe-Lillegraven (Faculty of Economics & Business Administration) supervises a PhD student whom she encourages to go to a big conference in the United States. ‘There's a lot of value in being there at least once, and it's a good way to get a sense of the field.’
When Boe-Lillegraven herself was doing her PhD research in Denmark, she flew to conferences in the US and Europe every year, and did field research in China several times. ‘It was considered necessary, as preparation for the job market, to make connections and ensure you got feedback on your work. My flying began to feel excessive.’ She has since decided for herself to fly to overseas only once every two years.
As far as Professor Franciska de Vries (Earth Surface Science) is concerned, PhD students do not need to go several times to a very large international congress in for example the United States several times. ‘What I think is normal for a PhD student is that they go to a kind of national congress in Europe, and once to a big international congress, but that can also happen to be in Europe. When I was a PhD student, I did not travel outside Europe for a congress either.’
If you do go to such a large congress in America, you have to have a concrete goal, she thinks. ‘Then you organize a session, invite people and make sure you really benefit from it.’
Although these academics primarily emphasize the importance of traveling for budding scientists, they themselves also fly regularly. Research shows that climate researchers specifically fly the most. Why are these conferences so tempting anyway? ‘What's special about a conference is that there are a lot of people together, that you can happen to meet people who are doing very relevant work. You can't simulate that online. You can perhaps look specifically at who you want to speak to and then send them a chat message. Maybe you can Zoom with them, but that natural dynamic is still missing. You cannot replace the loose, random, uninhibited networking,’ says De Vries.
Before the corona crisis, De Vries herself regularly flew to conferences. For a while there was an overlap between her job in Manchester and her job here, so she was often on the plane. Now that the overlap is gone, that's no longer necessary, but ‘I'm not going to stop flying for work altogether,’ she says. ‘As a scientist, and certainly as a climate scientist, you have to think very carefully about the air travel you do, but once in a while it just has to be done.’
Boe-Lillegraven is also not going to stop flying for her work, even though she uses alternative transportation whenever possible. ‘From Amsterdam, many locations can be reached by train, but that doesn't apply to the United States. I would rather sacrifice something in my private life. I find it hard to envision a future where I never fly for work.’
Boe-Lillegraven says you can build valuable relationships with someone you see once a year at a conference. ‘I consider it a privilege that I have academic friends all over the world. Some of them I've known since 2013, when I first went to a conference. We talk about the academic community, but also about specific projects we are working on. In between, we keep in touch online.’
That there is something irreplaceable about physical conferences is also what political science professor Liza Mügge thinks. Before corona, she went to America every year. ‘The work ethic is different there, so you start at 7 o'clock in the morning with the first breakfast meeting, and until late at night you have a tight schedule, after which you fall asleep dead tired. When I'm there I really get everything out of it. That exchange is not the same online.’
Professor Sloot emphasizes the need for coincidences, or serendipity, as he calls it. ‘When I travel to other laboratories or research institutes, something different always happens. You walk into the wrong room one day and you get into a conversation with someone you would never have talked to otherwise, or you see an experiment you never thought could be done. Travel encourages chance and that's what you need as a scientist; to be confronted with unexpected things, different angles.’
Sloot has no shortage of serendipity, as he held an appointment in Singapore for 12 years, and is still attached to St. Petersburg State University in Russia and to the Institute for Technology in Bandung, Indonesia. Whether that is necessary, working in four places at once? ‘Well, what is necessary? In Singapore I set up a center for complex systems, and thanks to the ideas I acquired there and the people I met we were able to establish the Institute for Advanced Study here in Amsterdam. The UvA is particularly proud of that. How do you measure whether it was really necessary? You can also not do it. But I thought it was worth it, it was my job as a scientist. Sometimes it just comes with the job.’
De Vries used to joke that her breakthroughs in science would compensate for her flying. ‘I'm working on how soils respond to climate change, so that could have implications for CO₂ in the air eventually. While those are not communicating vessels, advances in this area can actually contribute to a world less affected by climate change,’ De Vries said.
Online conferences are the predictable solution for scientists and their flight problem. According to the interviewees, there are several advantages and disadvantages to them. For example, Mügge believes that online conferences are tiring, especially if you have to follow it through the night due to time difference. Moreover, they are often chaired and presented as if it were a live conference, while it is quite different. People are more easily distracted. Kouroula also sees advantages. You drink your own coffee, you can easily hop from one presentation to the next, and what's more, it's more inclusive, because scientists with little funds can also attend. Moreover, innovation in the field of online conferences is not standing still; with the help of virtual reality, online is becoming more and more alive. As a participant, you can choose a puppet and a name, and then you can walk around as yourself in the virtual conference room. When you are near someone else, the camera turns on and you can talk to each other. You can also play poker, listen to music and dance, he says. That sounds very promising.
According to Sloot, we must not turn a blind eye towards other problems beside flying. ‘If we make the problem all about flying, we oversimplify it and other problems will get the chance to get worse. There needs to be awareness across the whole spectrum. The fact that people don't know that every search on Google launches an enormous amount of CO₂ into the air, or how polluting all those ridiculous buildings are that are erected to house all our data... let's talk about that.’
Boe-Lillegraven thinks that Corona was a push in the right direction. ‘We've talked about it a lot in the past, now we've done it, how shall we proceed?' She hopes that online conferences will continue to improve and that travel will become more efficient, so that everyone meets once, for example, rather than making multiple trips to different places. Boe-Lillegraven says the time is right for the UvA to devise clear guidelines for when scientists can travel again. ‘For example, some organizations have rules about when employees should take the train, or they offset emissions.’
Kouroula agrees that corona provides momentum. ‘Necessity is the mother of all invention. Because of corona, we know it's workable online, so we see more opportunities. I think we'll see hybrid forms the most. Partly online, partly physical. Not quite never flying again, but not as much as before either.’