So… “Fly or Die” is just a myth?

On Wednesday 31st, leading climate scientist Kevin Anderson was welcomed as the incoming Zennström Visiting Professor at Uppsala University. A packed auditorium listened to his lecture on “A Parisian tale of Triumph and Tragedy” (video footage here) and there’s no doubt his one-year tenure as Visiting Professor in Climate Change Leadership will leave a mark. Why? He is a living proof that the dogma of “Fly or Die” among academics is a myth, or at least, is a negotiable fact of academic life. For the past 12 years he has not set his foot in an airplane. That’s leadership!

KevinAnderson Charles Parker

Kevin Anderson, Charles Parker, David Nilsson and Jackson Kinyanjui: a happy lot at the reception. (Photo J Kinyanjui)

All of us might not have the stamina and the zeal to travel from UK to Sweden by train, let alone Shanghai. But he shows us that a de-coupling of CO2 and international academic collaboration is not impossible at all. Perhaps we can already now envisage new ways and cultures of interaction across space. These ways are different, yes, but not necessarily inferior.
We move because we think it is necessary for being a successful researcher, or at least, so it appears to us. However. A team of Norwegian researchers have found that the correlation between mobility and research quality (measured in terms of quantity and quality of publications) is in fact quite weak! (Aksnes et al 2013). Staying at home might not be an option, but the “need” for frequent and distant travel to be a good researcher seems to be overstated. As Kevin Anderson said, there are plenty of “international” conferences in our own or neighbouring countries, easily accessible by train. It’s just that we don’t think of them as such.
Maybe there are more blind spots, tacit assumptions and habits that we need to challenge on our way to decarbonised research. Anyway. Welcome to Sweden Kevin! There’s work to be done here too.