I’ve been struggling with the tension between academia and flying for a long time. The vast majority of my holidays I’ve done by train and the occasional boat – for example the train from London to southern Germany is a lovely ride, as is London to Edinburgh or Glasgow. But in academia the big issue is **conferences** and **invited seminars** – much of the time you don’t get to choose where they are, and much of the time there are specific conferences that you “must” be publishing at, or your students “must” be at for their career, or you’re invited to give a talk.
What can you do? Well, you can’t give up. So here’s what I’ve done, for the past five years at least:
* I’ve declined various opportunities to fly. Sometimes this hurts. In general, though, you usually find there are similar opportunities nearer by. You’ll probably meet most of the people in one of those events anyway. In the big picture, it’s probably better for academia to be structured as an overlapping patchwork network, rather than having single-point-of-groupthink.
* I’ve taken the train to many conferences and meetings. From the UK I’ve taken the train to France, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, and I’m happy to go further. If you haven’t done long train journeys for work then maybe you don’t realise: with a laptop, **many long-distance train journeys are ideal peaceful office days**, with a reserved seat and beautiful views scrolling past. If your concern is making time for the journey, don’t worry!
* When invited to fly somewhere, I always discuss lower-carbon ways of doing it. If flying is the only way and I’m tempted to accept the invitation, I ask the inviters to pay for carbon offsetting too.
(Many university administrations don’t want to pay for carbon offsets – why? This needs to change.)
* If traveling somewhere (even by train), always try to make the most of the journey by finding other opportunities while out there – e.g. a new research group to say hello to, a company or NGO. It’s good to make face-to-face contact because that makes it much easier to do remote collaboration or coordination at other times (with the same people, I mean), reducing the need for extra trips.
There’s a cost implication which I haven’t mentioned: flights are unfortunately often cheaper than trains and stopovers. This needs to change, of course – and can be a bit tricky when you’re invited to speak somewhere and the cost ends up more than the organisers expected. However, I’ve been managing a funded research project for the past five years and I’ve noticed that in fact I’ve **spent much less money** on travel than I had projected. Why? Well back when I wrote the budget I costed for international flights and so on. But my adapted approach to travel means I take fewer big long-distance trips, but I get more out of them because I combine things into one trip, and I’ve skipped certain distant meetings in favour of ones closer to home – all of which means the cost is less than it would have been.
**None of these are absolute rules.** We can’t carry all the burden solo, and we have to make compromises between different priorities. But if we all make some changes we can adapt academia to current realities. We can do this together.
I am a senior researcher in machine listening – which means using computation to understand sound signals. I co-lead the Machine Listening Lab at Queen Mary University of London, based in the Centre for Digital Music, and am also a Turing Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute. I have worked on voice, music and environmental soundscapes, and am now currently leading a five-year fellowship project researching the automatic analysis of bird sounds.