Academic travel largely stopped with the pandemic, and new remote meeting formats have increased accessibility and opened opportunities for worldwide collaboration in ways that were once impossible. As travel and in-person events start to become options again, scholars are questioning if returning to pre-pandemic 'normalcy' is the best choice.

On Monday, Feb. 22, Astrid Eichhorn, an associate professor in theoretical physics at CP3-Origins, University of Southern Denmark, and Kenneth Hiltner, an English and environmental studies professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, joined Prof. Sabine von Mering (ENVS) for a remote event titled “Rethinking the Future of Academic Travel: Opportunities for Social Justice and the Climate.” Eichhorn and Hiltner, moderated by von Mering, discussed “travel culture” and what the future of academic travel should entail.

Eichhorn said that in academic travel, two main challenges exist: climate and social justice. Travel poses a climate issue because of the vast amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases emissions that are released during every flight. The International Panel on Climate Change reported that only 500 gigatons of CO2 can be emitted before the consequences on the climate are irreversible, Eichhorn said. She then broke down this value to show just how much academic travel is adversely affecting the environment –– 500 gigatons of global CO2 emissions equates to a budget of 1.8 tons per person each year. However, a round trip flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Boston, MA, for instance, emits 2.9 tons of CO2 alone. Hiltner later added that, on his campus, about 50 million tons of CO2 are emitted from academic travel by plane each year. “That’s only the tip of the iceberg,” he said, considering that this value doesn’t account for the many other categories of travel.

As for the social justice challenge, the need to travel for academic conferences and other such meetings excludes much of the world’s population, Eichhorn said. While conferences are important for collaboration, the high costs involved with fees, travel and hotels mean that only more economically advantaged scholars are able to attend these events. “There’s a huge inequality in opportunities between different regions in the world,” Eichhorn said, noting later how academic travel limits participation in important research and leaves out the voices of many people.

Being able to go to an academic conference is a privilege, even within wealthier countries like the United States, but “the advantages that people have to going [to conferences] can be enormous,” Hiltner said. He explained how at some of the conferences he has attended, participants came out with influential research and work, “but that’s only the folks who happened to be there,” he said. For most people, these conferences were inaccessible.

Due to COVID-19, however, the world has had to rethink how we interact while working remotely, and people have begun to realize that online formats can support the type of collaboration that used to be done almost exclusively at in-person conferences. To this point, Eichhorn noted that because virtual collaboration is possible, if the need to travel for meetings remains ingrained in academia, it is not because of an infeasibility of remote work, but because of a pervasive “travel culture.”

Academic travel has been the norm for a long time and this travel culture is maintained because of the structural framework that organizes academic conferences and incentivizes travel, Eichhorn said. This culture is shaped by four groups: individuals, funding bodies, universities and research institutions, and conference organizers. In order to change this culture and continue to offer virtual conferences and means of collaboration post-pandemic, a change needs to be made at each level, she continued.

At the individual level, Eichhorn explained, people can deliberate whether to meet in-person or online and weigh the costs and benefits of each option. For funding bodies, they can incentivize virtual options instead of traveling and also provide funding for the research and use of virtual formats. Universities and research institutions can provide similar incentives and funding, as well as set emission targets with the goal of decreasing CO2 emissions from academic travel. Lastly, conference organizers can ensure that online participation is always allowed, whether an event is completely remote or hybrid. They should also reduce or eliminate conference fees for online participants, Eichhorn said. Hiltner also noted that for the climate issue, a carbon tax is a good way to deter flying and therefore challenge travel culture in general. “A change in travel culture is a positive opportunity for a more climate sustainable and globally inclusive academia,” Eichhorn said. Hiltner agreed, “We need profound cultural change here.”

Hiltner and Eichhorn both expressed hope that virtual formats –– such as Zoom meetings and virtual reality spaces like Gather Town or Remo –– that have developed during the pandemic will still be available once travel becomes possible again. Eichhorn mentioned it does not seem “realistic” that the world will transition to a permanently online format for academic conferences, but wondered at the possibility of hybrid formats. While better than excluding remote participants entirely, the issue with this format is that the in-person conference may end up being the “first class” conference in comparison to the online version. Additionally, those in vastly different time zones would still not be able to participate, he noted.

Hiltner started creating a change himself with the introduction of nearly carbon neutral” conferences five years ago. These conferences are completely virtual, asynchronous, free and open to the public. NCN conferences, he said, aim to solve both the climate and social justice issues associated with academic travel. Hiltner explained that the speakers of NCN conferences film their talks and post the videos to YouTube with captions. Next, all of the talks, though streamed through YouTube, are collected onto a WordPress webpage to create a source for the whole panel. Hiltner said that the conference remains open for two to three weeks, and people can participate by commenting on the videos and forums on the website.

Through this format, he explained, the conferences are made accessible to everyone, as long as they have access to internet connection. Moreover, Hiltner explained, not only are NCN conferences economically inclusive, but they are also inclusive of many people with disabilities. For instance, those with hearing impairments can read the transcripts, those with visual impairments can listen to the recordings, and those with mobility issues don’t have to travel to join. The asynchronicity of these conferences also accounts for participants in different time zones.

Although the use of electricity to power the internet on a computer or smartphone leaves a small carbon footprint, Hiltner said that this impact is less than 1% of the carbon footprint left by the air travel needed to attend a conference in-person. Hence, these virtual conferences are “nearly” carbon neutral.

Hiltner noted that one of the main concerns that people tend to have with virtual conferences is the lack of social connection with others. However, virtual reality does not have to mimic an in-person event exactly, he said, adding that many virtual formats have additional features that enhance presentations and collaboration in ways that cannot be done in person. “Trying to duplicate reality one-to-one … is kind of missing the point when you can add more features to [virtual reality],” he said. “It’s kind of time that academia caught up with this huge part of culture that’s now taking place online.”

The NCN conferences have garnered lots of participation, Hiltner said. He explained how attendees sign in with their name and affiliation, so that participants can make connections as they discuss with each other in the forums. He has noticed people often exchanging research, documents and contact information with one another to continue collaboration. The conference, complete with the speakers’ talks and the participants’ comments, is archived so that it can be accessed even once the conference ends. Hiltner said that this is also an important contribution to open access journalism –– the public can refer to any piece of the conference in the future, which is particularly useful for conducting academic research and writing papers.

Eichhorn explained early on that “enabling efficient international network building,” “maintaining excellence in research quality” and “increasing diversity and inclusivity” are all critical in academia. These ideas must be considered as travel culture is challenged and the format of academic conferences begins to change, Eichhorn said. Due to the necessity of remote collaboration during the pandemic, Eichhorn explained that these changes have started, but academia needs to continue on this path instead of completely reverting to the way things were before COVID-19.

Eichhorn noted that in her experience this past year, “Lots more participants that would never have been able to go to an in-person meeting have joined the online meetings.” With the realization that scholars from all over the world now have the opportunity to participate in important academic research without the burden of travelling, she asked, “Do we really want to go back to shutting the door on them?”