Saturday, July 08, 2006


Peter Hearnden offered a good rant in response to the news I was off to the UK recently. He makes an interesting point that I've often thought about myself: to what extent is it justifiable to fly around the world regularly for conferences, especially when we all say that AGW is a problem? Why not just use video conferencing?

Well, first it's worth pointing out that we do in fact use a lot of other forms of communication, regularly - especially email and telephone. Work would be very different without either of these tools. Video conferencing is much less common, and less useful (IMO and IME). It works ok for small groups, like adding a web-cam to a phone call (although the benefit of this is relatively minor). However, I've been at larger joint meetings where ~3 groups dispersed throughout the UK are all connected by a sophisticated video conferencing system (the access grid nodes at the e-science centres in the UK), and although it is much better than no meeting at all, it is really rather disappointing by comparison with everyone meeting at a single site. Within one group, rapid multi-way and parallel interaction is no problem, but across the system, it is very much one at a time, slow and hard to keep track of, even with this dedicated state-of-the-art system set up at significant expense. Broadcasting a presentation to a dispersed audience is one thing, but if we want to enable 10 conversations to go on in parallel (or even 3) out of a group of 50, with the participants switching from one to another randomly, then there really is no technological alternative (yet) to getting them in the same place at the same time. When it becomes more practical, I'll welcome it, as the past week of jet-lag has not been much fun.

That said, I wouldn't like to defend the volume of travelling that some people do - and I wouldn't like to do it myself. That applies as much to daily commuting as it does to conferences. I reckon that about 1 trip a year is a sensible level for me - any less and I'd really not meet many people at all, much more and it turns into the same old circuit of faces, where no-one has that much new to say from one meeting to the next. One trip per year is also our Institute's basic policy (ie budget allowance). In the past, I've often managed to combine more than one meeting in the same trip, and it also includes what I have in the way of foreign holiday (including visiting "aged parents", as they self-deprecatingly label themselves). Recently, however, I've had 3 long-haul trips in quick succession - the first was originally intended to be my trip for the year, then I went back to the UK briefly for personal reasons and most recently this workshop invitation came out of the blue and seemed too good an opportunity to miss. During the latter, I met several people for the first time in person who I'd only previously corresponded with via email, and also reacquainted myself with several more who I hadn't met for a year or more (including someone I'm supposed to be writing a paper with right now...). The scientific process is more social than many people may realise, and it is no exaggeration to say that a couple of beers in a pub every so often in diverse company may be more productive than hours at the desk.

Another perspective that must be borne in mind is that although research funds are limited and we have to spend wisely, that cuts both ways since travel is in fact pretty cheap. This workshop I just attended is part of a series of 3 in as many years funded as some sort of special project. I don't know the details but the total cost is probably comparable to employing at most a couple of postdocs over that length of time. I wouldn't be at all surprised if these meetings make a more substantial contribution to scientific progress than anything these postdocs might have done. If air-fares were higher to account for the full environmental impact then perhaps the balance would shift a bit the other way, but in fact most attendees were fairly locally-based anyway.

Probably this is sounding a bit defensive. Well, so it should: I do think that the volume of travelling that some people do is a bit crazy, and we should have to justify it carefully in terms of the costs (including the time taken) and benefits. I'm particularly conscious of the issue now I'm living a long-haul flight away from just about everywhere else in the scientific world :-) I'm sure that in many cases some rationalisation could cut the amount of travel down substantially, but probably not to zero, at least not without seriously impacting the work that we do.

[A minor additional detail: I feel I should point out that Egham, where we recently went, is an acceptably comfortable venue for a workshop, but it's hardly at in the top flight of tourist destinations - conference life is not all pina coladas on the beach watching the sun go down :-) The culinary highlight was the night we escaped from the college canteen to a decent Thai retaurant in town.]


Peter Hearnden said...

James, many thanks for your long, detailed and considered reply to my 'rant'.

Anonymous said...

This weekend I drove 400 miles to do a 130 mile bike ride, and I struggled with the decision. For years I've wanted to do the “Tour of the California Alps” (aka the Markleeville Death Ride), but I have a general policy of policy of not driving for bike rides. Two weeks ago a friend who was going offered me a ticket and a lift to the ride. Since he was going I thought joining him would not pollute much, but when he got sick, I was then left with the decision of going by myself. I found someone on craigslist who wanted a lift so there were two of us in my Honda Civic (~40 mpg). He probably wouldn't have gone if it wasn't for me. Any way it was a good ride, great scenery 130 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing, fantastic downhills. I'm not very sore, especially considering I only have 1200 miles for the year, and I was faster then most.

Still don't know how I can justify the drive.


Anonymous said...

I think the expectation that Access Grid can replace a face-to-face meeting is unrealistic. But I think it can be vastly better than no "face-involved" meetings. One of my projects has regular multipoint AccessGrid meetings, and we are working together much better than we would have with just email+phone ...

So, as one of those who travels "Far Too Much", I'm just grateful that AccessGrid drops it back just a bit. I'd like it to be more, but the technology isn't quite up to it yet, especially internationally.