Conference attendance must be discouraged, in our new columnist Menno Blaauw’s opinion. But how?
"I can’t honestly say those conferences helped my productivity. Not really." (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Conference attendance must be discouraged, in our new columnist Menno Blaauw’s opinion. But how?

Lees in het Nederlands

Greenlands ice sheet is melting by about 300 gigaton per year, as predicted by the IPCC in its worst case scenario. The worst possible news. The EU is aiming for zero CO2 emissions by 2050, and TU Delft by 2030. So were in the lead! Good news, and music to my ears as a rabid climate activist. Our magnificent Rector has worked on the energy transition throughout his career, and now it is policy for the entire TU Delft. Or is it? The Works Council does not yet see this reflected in the budget for 2020. Bad news. We read in Andy Dobbelsteens roadmap that air travel is a huge part of our emissions. So dont fly, and certainly not under 700 kilometres, is his proposal. But those international conferences are essential. Aren’t they? NOT. Let’s look at some facts to prove my point.

My parents published around 25 papers between 1948 and 1988. My mother even published one in Nature. My father attended two scientific conferences, one in Oxford and one in Dresden, without tacking on any days off. The University of Utrecht paid only half of the travel expenses, as travel was considered a kind of holiday. My mother never attended any conferences, and so her career proves that conferences are unnecessary. I have attended dozens of conferences and came back inspired, but couldnt I just as well have read all the information in a scientific journal? Wouldn’t this have even been better, more efficient, as the peer review would have sorted the wheat from the chaff? Conferences are an easy way to get an article published, but isnt that cowardly given that it involves less critical peer review?

‘TU Delft can set an example for other universities’

Conference attendance can even result in climate disasters, as in my case. In 1991, I attended my first conference. It was in Vienna and all of us travelled there and back on the night train. So far so good. But I met Professor Fleming from Ann Arbor, USA and in 1994, I spent three months in Ann Arbor on the grounds that we must gain ‘international experience’ in our scientific careers. I succeeded and I met my later ex-wife there. So that meant about 30 tons of CO2 emissions for family visits. Fossil fuel is still being burnt as my son visits her in Tampa three times a year. The solar panels on my roof and my being carless cant make up for that. And scientifically? I cant honestly say those conferences helped my productivity. Not really.

So I propose discouraging conference attendance. It was never really necessary and is redundant now that every self-respecting scientist has a 50 inch screen on the wall for teleconferencing. TU Delft can set an example for the other Dutch universities, and then the rest of the world will follow. But how?

The harshest option, outright prohibition, could lead to TU Delft scientists moving to other employers. The same argument is also put forward against taxing industrial CO­2 emissions. But wait, it could attract good scientists. ‘Good’ in the sense that they will be able to tell their children and grandchildren that they were ‘good’ in the fight against climate change.

Another tough measure would be to require anyone going to conferences to write a report on what they learned and to demonstrably share it with TU Delft colleagues before travel expenses are reimbursed. This fits self-learning organisations.

Counting conference days as time off would be a milder measure. Oops no. The target group would see this as a way of clearing their accumulated leave. Any right-minded workaholic and you have to be one to become a scientist in our anti-diverse macho culture would love to work while using up their days off.

So it’s back to the financial incentive, like in my parents time. Should you pay half yourself? Or everything? Or just the conference fee? Or the price difference between a hotel and a campsite?

Plenty of ideas and options. What will our Executive Board and the Works Council do with them? We will see. But lets not organise an international conference on this or any other topic!

After working there as a scientist for 20 years, Dr Menno Blaauw is now the Integrated Management System Programme Manager at the Reactor Institute. He also is a member of the Work’s Council.