Notes from Catherine Rowett, former Green Party MEP for East of England and deputy coordinator of the Eastern Region Green Party*(UK). Biographical reflections on life as an MEP. Longer reflections and discussions on issues relating to policy, the good life, justice, equality, anti-austerity economics and the future of the planet. This is also a forum for exchanging ideas on how to tread lightly on the planet and avoid supporting exploitation and corrupt practices. Here we go...

Saturday, 20 June 2009

What does it mean to be a green professor?

This week in the Times Higher there is a feature on the carbon footprint of Universities.

A long way down that article there is an interview with David Sedley (professor of ancient philosophy in Cambridge) who makes some pertinent points about the pressures on academics to travel.

In order to achieve promotion, for instance, one needs to show that one has a significant international reputation and that one is in demand as a speaker all over the world, and even if you're not looking for promotion this is what gives you high status both in your own eyes (it's nice to feel people have noticed that your ideas are worth hearing, and that they want to have you come and speak) and in the eyes of others when they judge your achievements, assess your grant applications, consider who are the stars in your university, choose who to feature as exciting globetrotters in their newsletters about the university's research successes, and so on. Besides, meeting and talking to other academics is important for generating and sharing ideas, so this is how we derive our intellectual stimulation—and that's especially so if you're the only one working in a certain specialist area in your own place. And universities tend to make you use flights for your overseas visits rather than alternative methods of travel, by providing only a small annual research and travel allowance, and by approving expenses claims only for travel by what appears to be the cheapest means. Indeed, I wonder if it would be possible to get a conference funded by the research councils and other funding bodies if one asked for the costs of travel by train and ship? I doubt it.

I have expanded a little here on the points that made it into the article about David Sedley, who has a very commendable policy of taking no more than one return flight per year and using the train for any other travel he agrees to undertake.

Well, the point is well made and Sedley is probably right when he says that most academics are still living the unexamined life in this respect, and that they regard his conduct as a little eccentric. Still, when he says (early on in the reported interview) that he's aware of few other academics who are trying to alter their style of travel, I thought it would have been nice if he'd mentioned this blog, because there is at least one other (and he remembered that enough to send me a message on Thursday to say he was being featured that day...). In the competition for green credentials, I may not be doing quite as well (I ended up with two sets of return flights to Europe this calendar year) but I did manage to avoid travelling to the USA altogether for the whole of the Bush era.

Besides, you should also bear in mind that Sedley already comfortably has his position at the very top of the academic field that we work in, and in a university that has an unusually large number of others in his field. His need for travel to establish his credentials as a major player in the field is not so great as it is for those of us who are still pleased, and even flattered, to be included in distinguished research meetings.

And for those who are really just starting out on an academic career (not that this applies to me but I'm thinking of those at the junior end, still looking to make a name) there'll also be the difficulty of finding the money to take the train, if as yet they have no permanent job and no secure salary, and are trying to find money for a house and to support a young family.

So we need to change the rules a bit, not just by asking academics to take the train at some personal cost in their reputation and status, but by slowing the pressure of academic life (we need to be able to find the time to add two nights on the train each way; so international meetings can't be held during teaching terms for a start), by having fewer and longer academic meetings (so that the extra time travelling is not out of proportion to the time once you get there), by funding the whole cost of the travel taking environmental cost into account, by requesting funding council grants that cover proper travel not air fares, and by providing adequate travel grants and child-care grants to assist early career academics to make the proper choices about their time and travel.

Comments welcome from other academics who think they deserve a place in this competition for the Green Professor.

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