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Blog Post
16 November 2020

What the pandemic taught us about the future of academic exchange

Photo: The Creative Exchange / Unsplash.

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed international travel, a typical activity for researchers and academics. It suddenly became customary to replace business trips with digital alternatives whenever possible. Four students at SLU decided to study the implications. The results of their inquiry reveal a great untapped potential to reduce emissions from academic travel by conducting a larger share of academic activities digitally, without compromising the quality of research.

Academia in a burning climate crisis

The topic of GHG emissions from academia in general and academics’ air travel, in particular, has been the focus of a growing number of publications in scientific journals and in mainstream media. This should be understood against a backdrop of factors such as i) the climate crisis itself,  ii) the notion of aviation as one of the fastest-growing sources of GHG emissions characterised by a slow technological development unlikely to compensate for the estimated growth in demand, and iii) the recognition of academic researchers as among the highest emitters when it comes to international air travel, but also as potential leaders in the transition to society living within the planetary boundaries, if combining advocacy with changes in their own emission habits.

This debate has resulted in various commitments, initiatives and responsibilities for higher education institutions (HEIs) around the world. With air travel being one of the universities’ largest sources of GHG emissions, the need to critically scrutinise the norms and practices of academic travel is apparent.

Prior to the pandemic, one could mainly speculate about the consequences of a drastic and large-scale reduction of travel in academia. University employees’ recently gained experiences of increased use of digital solutions that could replace longer business trips and pave the way for new norms and practices of academic travel.

In our study, we wanted to collect these experiences before they fell into oblivion. Through 25 semi-structured interviews and a survey with approximately 220 respondents, we sought to answer how employees at SLU experienced the cancellation of business trips and increased use of digital solutions. What trips were easily replaced and not? How was the quality of various academic activities (seminars, thesis defences, conferences, project meetings et cetera) affected by being held digitally?

Digital solutions replacing academic travel – what have we learnt?

Our study shows that there is a great, untapped potential to reduce emissions from academic travel without compromising the general quality of the research and work. By adopting a more thought-through mix of digital and physical meetings, where a larger share of activities are conducted digitally, academia can reduce GHG emissions while maintaining high-quality research and opening up for greater accessibility and participation.

A majority of the respondents were surprised by how well it had worked to replace longer business trips with digital alternatives, surprisingly well or beyond expectation were common formulations. An overwhelming majority (83%) of the survey respondents reported positive effects.

General effects on work

The academic activities that were experienced as most difficult to perform digitally were certain types of fieldwork and data collection, as well as activities that require spontaneous discussions and networking. We also found that meetings had become more efficient, but often at the expense of social interactions. On the other hand, well-structured meetings with a clear agenda between people that had previously met in person, as well as activities such as administrative meetings, project meetings and seminars, were perceived as most suited to perform digitally. These experiences were also mirrored in the survey respondents’ answers to what academic activities they thought could be held digitally – and to what extent – in the future.

What type of activities the respondents believed could be replaced with digital solutions after the corona crisis and to what extent.

Furthermore, our results show how digital activities have enabled greater accessibility and equality within the academic community. Researchers who would not have had the time, resources or possibilities to travel to various meetings could now participate in digital events on more equal terms. On the other hand, lack of access to a stable internet connection and different time zones made certain meetings less inclusive and/or equal. A key takeaway is therefore that digital events have the potential to be more inclusive than physical events but that it is important to actively consider equality and accessibility aspects in planning.

Another eye-opener following the increased use of digital solutions is how these were used to reach a wider audience with research and education. Instead of having farmers or beekeepers travel to SLU to listen to a seminar or to take part in a course, the material was recorded and made publicly available digitally. In a research project reference group consisting of farmers, more were able to join the meetings now that they were held digitally, as opposed to before when the group had to travel to SLU for each meeting.

Our study also found that there seems to be a need to improve how we use digital solutions and start thinking beyond the mere translation of a physical event or meeting into a digital one. The study participants had a lot of useful insights concerning this and we have summarized some of these insights in the figure below.

Six hacks for successful digital meetings.

Lastly, most informants lacked experiences of networking in digital events as this part had been neglected when events were digitised, and they stressed the need for new and inventive ways of networking digitally in the future.

New ways forward for academia post-corona

The participants clearly did not want to continue travelling to the extent they had before the pandemic. However, no one wanted to completely move from physical meetings to only digital solutions. It is time we find a golden middle way. Many expressed that they had begun to think in new ways about what makes it important to meet in person and what makes a business trip necessary or not.

“I’m sure you can reduce the amount of physical meetings quite considerably, and increse the quality of the [physical] meetings you do have so they are well motivated and so that you get the most out of them. Think of the good conditions and perks of meeting in person and then make sure to optimise them,” said on of the study participants.

Although the pandemic has closed countless doors, it should in some respect be seen as a window of opportunity to make decisions differently and do things in new ways. An opportunity to address and rethink what is actually possible in terms of reducing academia’s GHG emissions.

“There are surely plenty of ways to do this that we have never tried, that might be better than what we are doing right now,” said a study participant.

Interesting questions remain: what will university management as well as researchers make of this opening, what insights and new learnings will they bring into the future? Which new practices will stay on to become embedded within the culture of academia in a post-corona context?

We argue that the answers to these questions should lead to emission reductions in line with climate science. The decisions about what business trips actually are necessary are based on thorough evaluations of experiences from this pandemic, and that digital solutions are used strategically to replace longer business trips.

COVID-19 caused a lot of suffering, but it also opened a window of opportunity for academia to change old habits, reduce climate impact and take on a leadership role. Our study has shown that all of this can be done without compromising the quality of research. The time to act is now.

This blog is written by Emma Bergeling, Hanna Smidvik, Emil Planting Mollaoglu and Felicia Olsson. The blog captures the results from a recent study on Digital solutions replacing academic travel during the corona pandemic – what can we learn? A mixed methods study of experiences at SLU.