Flights for one ERC funding round ‘equivalent to 12 Moon trips’

Researchers decry ‘ridiculous’ travel for 30-minute interviews and ask colleagues and funders to commit to flying less

January 19, 2022
Brussels, Belgium, May 2019 Brussels airport, people waiting and going to meet their friends and families, arrivals hall
Source: iStock

There can be no return to the pre-pandemic days of academic jet-setting, according to scholars who calculated that a single European Research Council (ERC) grant allocation round resulted in flights equivalent to 12 one-way trips to the Moon.

Researchers who conducted a travel audit of the ERC’s 2019 starting grants, for which 376 panel members met twice in person and an estimated 1,013 candidates attended a 30-minute interview in Brussels, said that the funding round had resulted in 4.7 million kilometres of travel and 1,419 tonnes of carbon emissions.

This is equivalent to a dozen trips to the Moon and the total weekly carbon footprint of more than 4,700 European households – and likely an underestimate, since the analysis assumed attendees travelled by train if they were coming from less than 500km away.

“What I really think is quite ridiculous comes in when people are really flown in for a 10-minute pitch and 20-minute interview from New Zealand, from Japan, just for 30 minutes in Brussels,” said Teun Bousema, professor of the epidemiology of tropical infectious diseases at Radboud University in the Netherlands.

Professor Bousema, who has won ERC starting and consolidator grants and evaluates for several major funders, said that it was quite possible that peer review activities would return to being in-person after Covid restrictions eased, despite panellists being content to work virtually during the pandemic.

He said he had been talking to the ERC about how to reduce the carbon footprint of the grant-awarding process.

“I really hope they consider doing the first step virtually because it’s basically just shortlisting proposals,” he said. “Perhaps the last step, where you really have to discuss and say: ‘Is this proposal just above or just below the funding threshold?’ [then] I can imagine that needs an in-person meeting, but you could reduce your carbon footprint by 68 per cent by just doing the interview and step one by virtual means.”

With the co-authors of his analysis, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, Professor Bousema has asked academics to support a thoughtful travel pledge that calls for an end to unnecessary flights and a switch to virtual conferences and meetings.

Kate Whitfield, co-lead on the study and a sustainability specialist for the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, said that funders had a particularly important role to play as they “influence[d] the working culture of the academic sector”.

“We need action from them on sustainability. It would have a huge impact,” she said.


Print headline: Scientists fly ‘to Moon 12 times’ for grant round

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