Some thoughts on academic air travel and (a) future for conferences

Last week, Albert fired the starting gun on the discussion regarding the climate change impact of academic air travel and put a marker on the sand regarding his participation on any future conferences. Long story short, he is putting himself out of contention for conference engagements that imply flying.

I spent a few years thinking about this and going backwards and forwards with my feelings. On my end, I’m not ready to simply pull the plug completely on academic air travel because I still see them as a valuable part of my work. They are overrated as a content delivery mechanism (it is not efficient or cheap to put so many people in the same room at the same type) but they are invaluable on the social aspect. That has always been the bit I like about conferences the most.

Having said that, I cut significantly cut back my involvement on conferences (in general) for purely selfish motives. I have long stopped doing “pay to speak” kind of conferences which are the conference equivalent of predatory publishing. I also restricted my participation in conferences to 2 per year as each conference carries opportunity costs around the time they take to prepare and the clash with ever increasing work commitments at my university. I have also done so for more prosaic reasons as any conference abroad implies leaving my wife alone with parenting duties and we all know what that tends to do to women’s careers. Plus, after my health problems from 2017 I can no longer work at the same rate as before so I need to be even more ruthless with how I spend my time.

Albert’s plea is genuine and shows a deep level of care about the impact of his decision, not only for his career but also how it would be perceived in the wider academic community. I genuinely do not think his career has anything to suffer from the lack of participation in conferences requiring air travel but it is true that he (and to an extent myself) have reached a level in our careers where we can afford to take measures like this. His based on environmental concerns, mine on family, health and work/life balance. For us, good conferences are cherries on a cake and something we enjoy doing.

Paradoxically, taking this decision now is a easy option (the wide communication of it is not, as he put himself out to dry and inviting criticism) and frankly an option junior researchers might not have, especially due to the social element of the conferences. You show your wares and meet up the important people in your field - those that may be in hiring committees in the future. And my take about social relationships is that everything else being equal, the one with a wider network wins. That, I think, will be the crux of the matter for early career researchers on top of their difficulties on getting funding to go to those conferences too.

But there are things we can do to help out those further down the ladder. The first is when invited offer our place to a junior colleague. I benefited hugely from refusals by more senior people earlier in the career and I have long started to pay it back to the more junior ones.

Then there’s other stuff we can do. Maybe I should restart the Public Procurement Podcast and see who is out there early in their careers and in need of a boost of their profile. Or, as I suggested Albert earlier today on twitter, perhaps design an online only conference. These days I’m watching more and more videos on Youtube (aham gaming videos in case you’re interested) and their quality is excellent. Livestreaming with tools like Twitch is very convenient and way more accessible than in the past. Technology has evolved significantly from the days of the dreaded ‘webinars’ of 10 years ago. Communication with the audience is possible in real time and that can help create the effect of a community.

All this has made me think on how I would do my BARSEA project today in comparison with 2015? The podcast would stay as it is way more mainstream today than then, but instead of doing an ECR day in person I would do it online and keep the videos on Youtube/Vimeo or any other provider of the like.

So, let’s keep the conversation going.

Public Procurement Early Career Researcher Conference Tickets

I have made available a few (free) attendance tickets for the conference. If you are interested in joining us for the day, please go to this EventBrite page and register. First come, first served.

The conference is made available by the generous support of the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards.

PS: The British Academy also sponsored the current series of the Public Procurement Podcast.