Reducing aviation emissions in the tertiary education and research sector series: ECRs

Early Career Researchers with Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs

For the second instalment of our Reducing Aviation Emissions blog series, we have an opinion piece by Dr Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs, Chancellor’s Fellow in Sustainable Design in the Department of Design, Manufacturing and Engineering Management at the University of Strathclyde. Katherine is a social climate scientist, researching sustainable lifestyles in high-income countries. Her research has been published in Nature, the top global academic-journal, and covered by CNN, Circular, De Correspondent, Forbes, and Fast Company. Please see her website for more information.

Dr Ellsworth-Krebs has written a personal reflection on the need to fly as an early career researcher (ECR), responding to the often quoted ‘need’ for ECRs to fly to succeed in their academic career.


“Conference acceptances were announced today! There'll be lots of excited PhD students planning their flights!”

That’s the typical response colleagues have about attending conferences, but as a sustainability researcher this doesn’t fly for me. Over a decade ago I had to confront that one long-haul return could double my carbon footprint for the year. As an individual, flying is the fastest way to consume carbon. I’ve accepted I can’t be a ‘perfect’ environmentalist and that I’m going to be a hypocrite at times, so please don’t take this as a judgement on those who do choose to fly for work. I envy people who don’t carry the weight of eco-anxiety around in their decision-making and have written about how to make reduced flying fair through university mechanisms so it isn’t on staff, as individuals, to drive change.

That said, I do want to respond to the suggestions, especially from senior academics, about the reasons I’m told that I should be flying and going to conferences: networking, exchange of ideas & international recognition.

“There is a widespread understanding among academics that aeromobility facilitates career progression and is a necessary part of a successful career.”

Career progression (through making a global contribution to research) is one of the most common arguments to keep flying, but in my experience the pandemic and switch to work from home (WFH) was a major catalyst for more international collaborations. During the first lockdown I joined a team of twenty-seven researchers from 11 countries because not speaking to the person who sits in a desk next to you opened up time to talk more to researchers interested in exactly the same methodologies and problems anywhere in the world. With that group, the early days of Zoom coupled with Slack and shared Google Documents for live minute taking were better facilitated than most in person meetings I attend today.

I know international collaborations are not always possible for those based in labs and requiring access to technical equipment, but as a social scientist, the shuttering of offices and grounding of planes expanded my horizons. I published three papers and met regularly with ten co-authors, some who I am still conducting research with three years later. Yes, it was a delight to meet many of these people in person at a conference in Amsterdam in 2023 (which I travelled to by train), but I suspect that was the most fun conference I’ve attended because we’d already spent forty or more hours in discussion – through meetings, emails, revisions and writing together – rather than meeting strangers who could offer new perspectives.
“From my experience, international research and networking can still flourish and be enjoyable while flying less.”
In fact, I have only at that conference – after 12 years of attending academic conferences – started a research project with an international collaborator I met after a thirty-minute chat (it’s success to yield any papers or grants is yet to be determined). More frequently, networking has occurred through a slow building up of mutual admiration - I am mesmerized by a paper and over email or social media I get up the courage to tell that academic why I found their ideas useful. And vice versa. Over time, this back and forth has eventually led to a research idea that is mutually of interest and builds on our unique expertise.

I do not share these observations to imply everyone should network in the way that I do, disciplines and people are too diverse for such homogenisation. I write this for those people who cannot see an alternative to the status quo, that accepting we are in a climate emergency means doing things differently. From my experience, international research and networking can still flourish and be enjoyable while flying less.

Note from EAUC:

To read more about the experience of other researchers’ experiences of staying ‘grounded’, here are some further articles to consider:
This blog is the second instalment in our 'Reducing aviation emissions in the tertiary education and research sector' series. Please visit the series landing page to navigate to EAUC's aviation briefing paper for the sector and the other blogs.

Do you have an article or opinion to share? Please email us at quoting ‘Reducing Aviation Emissions Series’.
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