Climate Change and Academic Collaboration
It might seem perverse, given the extent to which Academic Collaboration has proven itself vital in the discovery and confirmation of climate change existence, current effects and likely future outcomes, but the imperative of Academic Collaboration is probably one of the biggest root causes of Climate Change within the Academic World.
If one took a survey of people’s incomes and the number of flights they take, one would note that the highest paid executives generally do the most flying. There might be a couple of blips on the scale, such as itinerant preachers who are paid little but expensed to travel anywhere they feel God is calling them to. But perhaps the biggest of these blips would be academics.
A close friend and I had a chat about this whole area, and came to a rather startling conclusion; that current research funding and assessment criteria are failing the planet enormously. It appears that in many cases, University departments are being forced to propose collaborations with Universities a thousand miles away when a department on the same campus could carry out the required work just as well. This is occurring for two main reasons, it would appear.
First is that funders prefer the shiny claims of international collaboration as an end in itself. Therefore a department must bend over backwards to work with others, even though this may not be the most financially expedient approach to carrying out the research. Second, the method of assessment used on UK universities, the RAE score, gives points based on these collaborations.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons why a collaboration across countries, and even continents, might be necessary. Some areas of research are so specialist that there are genuinely very few people capable of working on them in the entire world. Sometimes research needs to here different voices or cultures to be relevant. But where there is international collaboration, there must be travel, and that travel almost always means flying.
The travel is necessary because Skype conference calling just doesn’t do the job. It could be better employed, but its not going to solve the criteria for a solution to the problem; research quality must not be impinged upon. Flying is often necessary because of institutional bureaucracy demanding money only be spent on the cheapest means of transport. With rail travel on average 2.5 times more expensive, its no surprise finance offices refuse to reimburse. Nor should they need to.
The problem isn’t that academics are flying, it is that they are being forced into situations where the journey is entirely illogical. Rather than walk down the corridor, or over to another building, to meet someone equally capable of providing the assistance required, they must travel (i.e. fly) to meet someone in another country so that their establishment does not suffer.
My friend could think of at least one case where this was definitely happening, and not just within an institution, but within a department. Her research group, in order to secure funds, had to promise to work with researchers in another institution whilst a few offices away, researchers are doing more or less the same required task, but for another University overseas. In each case, travel is required, and in each case, that travel is in the form of flights.
The solution, and in fact it is a remarkably simple one, would be to first change the assessment criteria to simply mark departments on the amount of collaborative work they do, regardless of the geography (especially given International collaboration currently counts for more than domestic collaboration). And then the research funding bodies need to match those changes. In short, the requirement shouldn’t be to demonstrate international collaboration, but rather its necessity.
This wouldn’t prevent people from collaborating whenever it is an actual requirement of the research, and it wouldn’t prevent all the useful encounters that take place, as academic conferences would be completely unscathed. It also wouldn’t stop academics collaborating, as departments and research groups within Universities would still have to talk to each other. But it might go a long way to reducing the number of airline tickets being sold, without creating a strain on university funds.