Rights of passage

March 23, 2007

Mark Levene says academics who care about the planet will have to start thinking hard not just about how they travel but whether they travel at all...

The lady at the university travel agency laughed. "You want to go to Copenhagen by boat?" "Well, train and ferry, if that can be done?" was my nervous rejoinder. "Excuse me, but why do you want to do it like that when getting on an aeroplane would be cheaper and quicker?" "Something to do with climate change," I muttered.

To go to a conference abroad by a deliberately slower route is not only to invite incredulity; in straight financial terms, it doesn't make sense. The trip in question, made more than 18 months ago, even with a special discount on offer for the ferry company cost two if not three times as much as the standard air fare, while the journey itself took me at least three times as long. On top of that, I had to explain myself to the international conference organisers, and they then had to decide whether to reimburse me from a necessarily tight kitty, or equally embarrassingly, for them to disinvite me. Kindly, they plumped for the former. Even then, my moral high ground was dented somewhat on my return: the Crisis Forum e-mail discussion list, of which I am a moderator, soon afterwards had an extraordinarily informed debate on the comparative carbon emissions of ships versus planes, the provisional conclusion of which (depending on your method of evaluation) was that going by ship, actually, could be considerably worse. So what's the point of this story? Indeed, is there a case for boat travel, in some circumstances? The short answer is no. And for a simple reason. Anybody in the academic scene who cares a jot about the planet will be thinking twice about going to any conference.

The last invitation I accepted was on the insistence of my taking part by video-conferencing. And my general rule now is to do as few as possible, preferably only in Britain and the rest, well, rarely or never. Tough? Certainly. Unrealistic? Absolutely not.

If academics are serious about climate change and want to lead by example, we are going to have to rethink our whole modus operandi anyway. Might this still leave openings for occasional boat travel? Yes. The potential for redesign of ships is there, not least through a mix of technologies, including wind and solar power. Of course, it will mean everything we do will have to slow down radically, to which I respond: hurrah!

I enjoyed the trip to Copenhagen enormously. It was a treat. And I felt the travelling, for once, was for real. There are also some great windmills as you come into Esbjerg harbour.

Mark Levene is a history lecturer at Southampton University and co-founder of the Crisis Forum, The Forum for the Study of Crisis in the 21st Century.

http:///www.crisis-forum.org.uk .  

..but Chris Lowe insists that face-to-face contact with colleagues cannot be abandoned

One of Chris Lowe's ambitions as a child was to visit every country in the world. Having been to almost 115, he's nearly done it.

Myanmar, Greenland and Cambodia still evade him. Lowe, director of the Institute of Biotechnology at Cambridge University, has made many of his trips in connection with his work as an academic, either for research purposes, on spin-off business or to attend conferences.

He says conferences in the biotechnology field, however, tend to be concentrated in a handful of countries - mainly the US, East Asia, Canada, Australia and Western Europe.

Part of the problem is the lack of enough academics with sufficient standing in the field in other countries to make a conference worthwhile.

Then there are logistical problems, such as getting international delegates there and the availability of conference facilities. Lowe is very much in favour of attending conferences. He says you can't beat face-to-face chats for networking and getting ideas, but he is worried about the implications for his carbon footprint and has used Skype links for meetings as well as video-conferences. "I can see the sense in doing everything by video conference, but you can't beat face-to-face meetings and you can't pick up all the nuances by video-conference," he says. "You need to create a collaborative atmosphere, maybe have a drink with people, meet new people and reacquaint yourself with others. You can't possibly beat a proper conference for that."

Aside from the social advantages of travelling to conferences, Lowe finds travelling by aeroplane gives him time to think. "Sitting in an airport is not dead time for me," he says. "I can think about where my research is going and whether it is worth pursuing something. At work I don't have time to think. It is deadline after deadline after deadline. It is very valuable to have time to think. I normally take a pad of paper with me."

He thinks India is a place to watch on the international biotechnology conference circuit. "It has a very good education system, and people are well trained in the fundamentals. It is starting to get the infrastructure it needs to build up its biotechnology work. It didn't have that in the past, which meant it lost many of its good people."

He compares it with China, which is also up and coming in biotechnology. "China's education system doesn't encourage people to be individuals, and I think this will put a limit on their ambitions. India has the right combination of imagination and skills." He adds that conference facilities in India have improved, too. "You used to have to be fairly robust food and water-wise. Things are much better now."

Interview by Mandy Garner

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