Most researchers can’t imagine doing scientific work and not attending conferences. How often do they travel to conferences each year? What modes of transport do they use? What are their reasons for attending the conferences? And would they be willing to change their behavior in some way to help limit climate change? These are the questions that interest Dr. Verena Haage, a scientist who formerly worked in Helmut Kettenmann’s lab at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). “I’m concerned about sustainability,” says the biologist, who will soon begin a postdoc position at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. “And I think scientists should play a pioneering role and lead with good examples.”
More than 60 percent are interested in alternative conference formats
Haage evaluated answers from 227 questions for her study, which was published in the open-access scientific journal eLife. Researchers attend three conference a year on average, whereby scientists in leadership roles travel the most and early-career researchers the least. The choice of the mode of transport varies considerably depending on whether they are attending national or international conferences. Rail travel is the No. 1 mode of transport to conferences held in Germany. It was used by more than half of attendees of national conferences, while 13 percent of such attendees traveled by plane.
The main mode of transport to international conferences was air travel, at more than 50 percent, with 37 percent going by train and 11 percent by bus. Very few respondents traveled to national and international conferences by car (less than 8 and 4 percent, respectively). The bicycle is often the transportation of choice when conferences are held in the researchers’ hometown – one in eight respondents said they used this sustainable mode of transport to travel to national conferences.
Haage was surprised by one of the survey’s findings: Most of the respondents, more than 60 percent, said they would be willing to reduce their travel to conferences, and about the same number were interested in alternative conference formats. “Researchers are open to such changes, but there also need to be viable alternatives,” Haage says. That means, for example, that travel time should be counted as working time. That would make it easier for researchers to choose more sustainable rail travel, which takes longer than flying. Institutions could also make it mandatory to travel to national conferences by train or bus – anyone going by plane would have to meet the costs themselves. In addition, organizers could make the conference formats themselves more environmentally friendly. “Institutions could offer large conferences in hybrid formats: Researchers meet in local hubs, which are linked together virtually through videoconferencing. This is more sustainable because it reduces travel distance while maintaining face-to-face networking at the hubs,” Haage explains. Her study found that there have as yet been few such initiatives.
Coronavirus crisis shows that virtual formats offer many advantages
The coronavirus crisis has changed the world of conferences in one swift stroke, with headsets replacing jet lag, and video streaming replacing train travel. “I am thrilled and see this transformation as one of the few positive aspects of the crisis,” Haage says. She has already taken part in a virtual conference and believes that the format works well. The most difficult thing, according to Haage, is to get the moderation and post-talk discussions right. “But I also see lots of advantages over traditional conferences,” the researcher points out. “One positive is that all talks are recorded, allowing you to view them later.”
Haage also finds it exciting how networking has changed: “I think researchers now feel less hesitant about writing to speakers, even eminent authorities, after a talk.” On the down side, spontaneous exchange is no longer possible; instead, you have to set up a meeting on messaging platforms like Slack. This communication tool allows small groups to discuss specific topics and also share links and texts. Through a Slack channel, Haage found her way to an academic activist group that wants to make sustainability more of a priority in the world of academia. “Collaborations can also be forged this way if there is a mutual interest in working together. They can happen without coffee breaks,” the researcher says pointedly.
She will soon publish, together with Nature Index, a commentary on her study that sums up what the coronavirus crisis might mean for the academic conference culture. “I hope that real and lasting changes take place,” Haage says. But she doesn’t want to do away with conferences altogether: “If, for instance, a conference held annually would use a virtual format every two years, this would not only be much more sustainable and still be efficient, but it would also save a lot of money.”
Text: Wiebke Peters
Verena Haage (2020): “Research Culture: A survey of travel behaviour among scientists in Germany and the potential for change”, eLife, DOI:
Scientist in the Kettenmann Lab
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC)
Editor, Communications Department
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC)
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