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Well, can you do excellent science without flying?

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Joshua Msika, the James Hutton Institute’s sustainability coordinator, posed the above question of those passing through to the canteen one lunchtime during climate week. He got a mix of yes/no answers and comments in response, and the question certainly stimulated debate that day. The obvious answer is “Yes,” not least because plenty of excellent science was conducted before the invention of the aeroplane in the early twentieth century. But the situation now is rather more complicated, and it’s not as though stopping flying is the only thing you can do to cut your carbon emissions and help reduce the threat from climate change. In this blog post, I look at all the reasons why stopping flying as a scientist is far from a trivial decision for us to make, and raise dietary change as an alternative.

Unless you have independent means, doing any science at all (excellent or otherwise), requires you to persuade someone who does have money to pay you to do it. The Scottish Government pays for much of the science we do, but a significant proportion of our work is paid for by the European Commission, the UK Research Councils, and industry. Funding bodies don’t just have an interest in paying for excellent science, they have an agenda and associated eligibility constraints aimed at ensuring that their priorities in funding work are achieved. It’s their money.

For example, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme typically pays for ‘Collaborative Projects’, which stipulate that at least three organizations from different countries must be involved. This is a quite reasonable requirement for a body that seeks to promote collaboration across Europe, even if it means that you find yourself looking for a partner abroad to contribute to a proposal when you know someone down the corridor who could probably do the same thing.

If someone tells you to 'go to Hell' you could take the train from Trondheim Værnes airport in NorwayIf someone tells you to 'go to Hell' you could take the train from Trondheim Værnes airport in NorwayNow, it is possible to get the train from Aberdeen or Dundee to any destination in Europe. You can just about make it to Paris or Brussels, for example, in a (rather long) day. In two days, you can get pretty much  anywhere, especially if you are willing to share a couchette with a stranger. Two days, however, is a long time to spend travelling. Trains don’t provide what might entertainingly be called “working class” carriages with affordable seating that complies with health and safety regulations on day-long display screen equipment use so you can sit at your laptop and get some work done uninterrupted, whilst avoiding being accused of indulgent luxury at the taxpayers’ expense. And if you can’t work while travelling, those two days are expensive in terms of the cost of your time.

Flying, on the other hand, is usually cheaper, easier to book, quicker, involves fewer changes (and hence less uncertainty over delays), and, above all, doesn’t require you to share an ‘insomnia’ compartment (as I think they would more accurately be named). My hat is off to anyone who can sleep on an unpredictably moving two-foot-wide bench whilst sharing a small space with someone snoring off their binge in the bar.

The Research Councils’ guidance on travel and subsistence, on the other hand, requires that “All journeys must be made by the most suitable and economical means.” Given all the assertions about train travel above, doesn’t that mean you are flying if attending a conference on mainland Europe? Is there any reasonable, auditable argument that trains are more suitable or economical than planes for a destination in Rome, or Stockholm? Indeed, some destinations in the UK, such as London, Manchester or Birmingham, might more suitably and economically be reached by plane than by train.

This brings up the matter of conferences. We don’t have to go to conferences to do excellent science. We could work quietly and diligently in the field, and at our desks or lab benches until we have material suitable for a journal submission, and then wait for the editorial process to run its course and our exciting results to be visible to the world perhaps six months later. Kendall Powell, writing in 2016 to Nature, has a graph showing that the median time to acceptance in high-impact journals (those supposedly publishing the most ‘excellent’ science) in the PubMed database is around 150 days. If someone reads that work the day it is published, and is excited enough by it that they drop everything and start work on a paper that will cite it; it’s going to be at least another 150 days before the reaction appears. That’s the kind of conversation you could have with an inhabitant of the Oort Cloud. Even if not for the fact that conversations can take place more spontaneously than via scientific publications, conferences are useful venues to get you and your work known, and hence foster the kinds of conversation that lead to collaborative funding projects to pay for your excellent science.



The James Hutton Institute doesn’t just do any old science. It has recently dedicated itself to three scientific challenges on, essentially, sustainable intensification of crops, ecosystem resilience, and sustainable communities. Food security, biodiversity loss and one-planet living are some of the most urgent global challenges of our time. They are also classic ‘wicked’ problems – so complex there won’t be universal agreement on their definition, on whether proposed solutions will work, on what medium- or long-term unintended consequences might be, or on their political acceptability or workability. If we are to contribute to their solutions now, it will be collaboratively, in transdisciplinary teams. If those teams only involve collaborators and face-to-face conversations within a comfortable half-day’s train ride from Dundee or Aberdeen, I doubt we can convincingly argue that we are making any meaningful contribution to their solution at a global level.

The previous paragraph mentioned face-to-face meetings. Face-to-face interactions are emphasized by the Agile community in software development, but it is reasonable to ask whether they are really necessary. Let’s assume, for now, that all the niggles with Skype, WebEx, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, etc. have been solved, and it is possible to hold a meeting using internet-based technology without feedback, asking each other to turn off microphones when not speaking, and whether or not we can be heard. Let’s also ignore the fact that the internet is not without its own impact on the environment. (It’s probably still better than flying.) I wonder when the last time was that you held a video conference with a semi-arbitrary bunch of scientists, some of whom you don’t know, without any specific purpose or agenda other than to randomly bounce some ideas around. Such conversations are, perhaps (and without meaning to be rude to my colleagues), among the most creative and inspiring I have ever had; and all have been held face-to-face at conferences or project consortium meetings, usually over a meal, when formal business is furthest from our minds. Since I haven’t done so, maybe I should try arranging a “random meeting to discuss ideas” by video conference and see what happens…

Excellent science is often (though not always, or not exclusively) done by excellent scientists. Excellent scientists find themselves being invited to give keynote lectures at conferences, and talks and seminars to other research groups. These may also entail international travel, and even intercontinental travel where a plane really is the only viable option. We even, with almost tragic vanity, keep track of these things on our CVs as “tokens of esteem”. They are measures by which we are judged both internally, and by future collaborators and future employers. It’s asking a lot to expect people to turn these things down to save on their carbon emissions. If we look at promotion criteria for the highest science grades (F and above), evidence for assessment criteria include several that involve international travel, such as productive national and international collaborations, invited speaker at national and international conferences, and acting as an ambassador for the organization.

So yes, maybe it is possible to do excellent science without flying, but, as things currently stand, not science that delivers meaningfully to our challenges, not science that is eligible for funding by some of our major sources that aren’t the Scottish Government, and not science that puts you in a good place to satisfy promotion criteria or make you attractive to a potential future employer.


There are alternatives to reducing carbon emissions, one of which isn’t necessarily going to be popular with our main funder or some of our key stakeholder audiences. Imagine we were really concerned with cutting our carbon footprint, rather than hampering our opportunities to advance our careers, collaborate effectively, or make a difference with the science we do. The methane emissions associated with the production of ruminant-derived foodstuffs are a known significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Though some mitigation is possible with adjustment to management practice, it doesn’t really matter how skilful the animal husbandry is, or how locally the product is sourced: the problem for the climate is with ruminants’ digestion.

The publication of the latest report by the IPCC among other things has led to various articles calling for reducing our meat and dairy intake as an immediate course of action that would cut global emissions. Estimates are pretty variable, but one website gives 13.3kg of CO2-e per kg of beef, and 23.8kg of CO2-e per kg of butter. Contrast this with another estimate of 0.115kg of CO2-e per passenger km on a short-haul flight. That’s 94km of flying for every pack of butter, and 13km of flying for each quarter-pounder. A return flight to Amsterdam is a hundred burgers or so.

Life without consuming animal products is as unthinkable to some as excellent science without flying seemingly is to me, and what you choose to eat is very much a personal decision. However, even though the figures show that flying is probably a higher priority than dietary change, I think the answer to, “Can you do excellent science without eating ruminant animal products?” is much more straightforward than the question Joshua, quite rightly, posed.

To do excellent science without flying, a lot will have to change in the culture of academia: in the ways we fund science and evaluate scientists, not only in the Institute, but in other organizations too. This is not to resign ourselves to the status quo as being beyond reform, and there are bottom-up initiatives with the aim of instigating change. However, we do need to work somewhat urgently on reforming the ways we assess the quality of science and scientists such that they are decarbonised. The James Hutton Institute should of course use what influence it has to bring about such changes, but it will not be able to do this alone.

With the latest IPCC report giving us only twelve years to avoid catastrophic climate change, short term actions are vital too. An immediate action available is for us to look for initiatives that compensate the CO2 emissions from our work activities. Even checking the option to compensate when you book flights sends a signal to the market that you are concerned about your impact, even if the benefits of such compensation are questionable. As a landowner, The James Hutton Institute has avenues that are not necessarily open to everyone. For example, we could set aside some of the land we own and plant a tree on it each time we take a flight. Besides sequestering some carbon as they grew, over the years, as we planted more and more trees, there would be a significant, landscape-scale visualization of our institutionalized addiction to flying.

Haiku on display at the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



Dear Gary
Thanks for a great and thought provoking post that really well illustrates the multiple interacting pressures that shape our 'institutionalised addiction to flying'. I agree that controlling our diet is in some ways easier. so we should act on that. I am vegetarian but this year I am trying to reduce dairy consumption. My toddler son is somewhat offsetting my efforts but when he is older I hope he'll be a mostly-plant based eater too.
Perhaps in the medium-term funders could think about the climate impacts of their requirements - for example, perhaps the EU could require at least one project meeting to be held virtually rather than face-to-face. It might have some detrimental effects, but it would be interesting to be pushed to try it!

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Printed from /blogs/well-can-you-do-excellent-science-without-flying on 25/02/24 02:49:45 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.