Can We Reduce the Carbon Cost of Scientific Mega-Meetings?

ResearchBlogging.orgI admit it. I love big scientific meetings. There’s something about the intense intellectual hubbub of thousands of my fields greatest minds gathered in one place for a few days of showing off the latest, greatest, flashiest work that just fills me with joy. Also a need to sleep for a week afterwards due to my brain going at a Matrix-like pace to keep up with all of the new and interesting information while spouting off ideas, critiques, beginning collaborations, and constantly questing to understand the growing shape of the research fields that interest me. It’s quite simply an intellectual smörgåsbord. But like all such dining experiences, there is a cost. A cost I’ve been wrestling with in this new piece in Enthobiology Letters with my collaborator Alexandra Ponette-González.

It’s a carbon cost. A cost for climate change.

Simply, there a lot of people at these Mega-Meetings. A LOT. And they are rarely local. Most of us fly in, from across the country, from another country, or even another continent. Those flights put out CO2 emissions – a lot of it. Heck, even driving the full distance to some of these meetings would have a high emissions profile given the distances. And it makes you stop and wonder – we ecologists who are so environmentally conscious, what is the carbon cost of our engagement in big Mega-Meetings? Could we be doing better? How?

A map of the location of the last several ESA meetings and the 2010 AGU meeting (triangles with Carbon Cost next to them) as compared ti the distribution of attendees (circles proportional to number of attendees from that area over all meetings). Costs are in per capita metric tons.

A few years ago, this issue came up at the DISCCRS conference – an annual interdisciplinary gathering of early career climate researchers that is truly amazing. During the coffee afterwards I got to talking with a fellow attendee, and we began brainstorming. How could the big scientific societies of the world – the ESAs, AGUs, or, heck, maybe even the AAASs – still conduct their vital business of intellection discourse while reducing their carbon footprint from meeting travel?

Travel is the key – if attendees, even the same number of attendees, didn’t have to travel to far and use air travel, it’s possible that we could dramatically lower carbon costs. Merely limiting the number of meetings or restricting the number of possible attendees seemed draconian and not possible. Carbon offsets have proven to be unreliable. Telecommuniting to meetings limits the real value of live social interaction (so far). It seemed like there wasn’t a good solution. But then we began to think about a second kind of meeting that some, but not all, of us attend.

I’m talking about meetings that are smaller, cozier, with researchers rarely from more than a few states away. Grad students have piled into cars, trucks, vans, llama-powered motor-scooters, and more to make the pilgrimage for the meeting’s weekend of showing their stuff and finding new colleagues, collaborators, and mentors. These are the meetings where you form deep relationships that you come back to year after year – relationships that slowly bear great intellectual fruit. Meetings like The Western Society of Naturalists, for example.

True, Mega-Meetings are quite different from these smaller more local meetings – like the big flash of molecular gastronomy to the simple elegant nourishment of slow food – elBulli to Chez Panisse. Therein, however, lies their intrinsic value – a value that attendees of only Mega-meetings may actually be missing.

So we began to ponder – what if societies alternated between Mega-meetings and a large number of smaller more regional meetings? Could this be a possible solution? Intellectually, sure, I’m sure some would still argue against it, but that would be moot if the carbon savings were trivial. So we sat down over the next few months and did the computational equivalent of some back-of-the-envelope calculations of carbon as currently emitted versus carbon emitted based on several different scenarios of meeting distributions.

And then we sat back, pretty surprised.

Assuming that pretty much everyone drives, but that no one carpools (or uses llamas), carbon savings under our most pessimistic set of assumptions were around 50%. That’s right, halving the carbon emissions.

Granted, this is back-of-the-envelope, but, the idea is pretty compelling. And yes, there are other costs – administrative, logistic, etc. But thinking from a carbon perspective alone, this result is pretty stunning. Not only are there large carbon benefits, but local meetings confer other benefits – contribution to regional economies, better ties to regional organizations and NGOs, and quite likely a higher degree of participation from graduate students (and lower attendance barriers to undergraduates and the community).

We also considered other alternatives – lowering carbon costs by taking the distribution of members into account, reducing international participation, etc. But the drawbacks in these seemed to be ones that most people would not, at least currently, accept, when we floated ideas to others.

So, this local-regional alternation seems to be something worth thinking about. Would you be willing to participate in an alternative society structure – one where meetings alternated between being large and international and then small and regional? What would be lost for you? What would be gained? Would it be too much of an additional burden on organizers? Would that burden be justified by carbon savings?

Also of note, we had a hard time getting this published. We had a lot of wonderful comments from editors and reviewers who were very positive about this work, but then would say, “Oh, but, you know, we just don’t have a venue for this.” (sometimes followed weeks later by editorials stating “THIS IS A PROBLEM! WHERE ARE THE SOLUTIONS?” which we thought curious) We tried multiple generalist and specialist journals, journals for societies and by regular publishers. I’d like to thank Ethnobiology Letters for going out on a limb and publishing this, as conversations like this need to be had in the peer reviewed literature.

Ponette-González, Alexandra G, & Jarrett E Byrnes (2011). Sustainable Science? Reducing the Carbon Impact of Scientific Mega-Meetings Ethnobiology Letters, 2, 65-71

10 thoughts on “Can We Reduce the Carbon Cost of Scientific Mega-Meetings?

  1. Excellent! The mini-meetings is a wonderful idea. They’ll bring more scientists from those regions (not just those with poster and talks), and because they’re smaller, it might be easier to have meetings more often.

    One group of people who DISLIKE this idea…sales reps.

    I will promote an alternative society structure, great idea. What would be lost? Interaction with brains from outside the region. The more minds, the more ideas are generated.

  2. This is such a cool study! Kudos to you for putting in the time and effort, and pushing until it got published.

    Personally, I think fewer AAAS-style and more WSN-style meetings is a great idea. Avoiding air travel not only reduces carbon emissions and saves money, but it also bypasses the TSA–which has gotten unpleasant enough for some people to give up flying altogether.

    Another good solution might be to install a high-speed rail system throughout the country, but I guess that’s kind of pricey.

  3. Is your paper freely available somewhere? It looks like I’d need to be a member of something to read the version in Ethnobiology Letters. In math and physics, all papers are freely available on the arXiv. It’s a sad fact that for subjects that might help save the planet this practice seems less common.

  4. Re: publishing this, did you try the ESA Bulletin? I’m guessing you did (that’s the first outlet that would occur to me), in which case I’m very surprised that they’d decline it. They published my PubCreds piece with Owen Petchey, although the fact that I’m in the same dept. as the EiC may have helped.

  5. Another thing to consider: indirect effects. Say I’m a grad student in my final year and I’m looking for post-doc opportunities. It just so happens that this year is a regional-meeting year and of course I go because I want to present my research. But I also want to meet up with professors from another part of the country. So I make a *second* trip just to meet with them to talk about potential collaborations for a post-doc. Now I’ve emitted *more* CO2 than I would have if I could have just met up with these same professors at a mega-meeting.

  6. Thanks for the NE catch. Fixing that – it’s something to do with plotting zip codes with a 0 in front that wasn’t caught earlier. It doesn’t affect any of our analyses, though, just the plot.

    As for indirect effect, an interesting point. I think the second trip is a) just a normal part of business that a local/regional plan won’t eliminate and b) I would guess much less frequent – not everyone is making the second trip. But I have no numbers to back that up. An interesting point.

  7. We would like to thank those of you who read the article and provided feedback. The map and a typo were fixed and a new revised version of the article is now available at the link above.

    Thanks again,

    Alexandra

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