Practise What You Preach On being a travelling scientist

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The act of boarding a plane is nothing out of the ordinary; it is a frequent occurrence in the world of higher education, and arguably, an expected and integral part. It is also unquestioned. Flying is ingrained within academic growth and exchange. Without flying, we cannot tell the story of an academic. What happens when we try to change the story? Which snoozing monster do we awaken when we disturb the smooth surface of the travelling academic’s habitual life? There are many scientists who are poking and prodding this unknown creature, and have awakened discussion and started to tell other stories. As a travelling scientist myself, I am also trying to change my story.

"As a travelling scientist myself, I am also trying to change my story."


I begin at a recent academic conference I had the opportunity to attend. At the international and interdisciplinary Transformations 2017 at the University of Dundee, academics and practitioners gathered to discuss the world's major wicked challenges, focusing on practices for transformation towards a sustainable society. With the conference theme in mind and with the constant and serious discussion about how much our travel-habits contribute to our carbon footprints on the environment, I decided to take the long way to Scotland from Sweden. As is policy at the university, I contacted the travel agency of the university to book my travels. My request was met with confusion (they thought I wanted to book a train to Arlanda airport) and finally, after going through a few different travel agents, a denial of my request. I was frankly incredulous when faced with the implications of what this meant for incentives to take alternative means of travel to that of flying. In the end, and with the help of a friend who herself had done some long train trips, I did what the travel agency of one the state’s largest and most prestigious institutions could not, and booked the tickets myself.

In preparation for my slow travel, I amassed copies of a colleague’s booklet titled ‘The Travelling Scientist Itinerary’ to share with fellow conference attendees. These booklets had originated within the The Travelling Scientist project at KTH to catalyse conversation around the travelling habits of academics. I also used pithy hashtags like #thetravellingscientist and #GoByTrain when I tagged my Instagram images. I even had the luxury of not having to plan my trip around a family or other obligations that can make long journeys difficult and impractical. But are my cute hashtags, little booklets, and the privilege to travel slowly really making a difference when looking at the big picture?

Surely is it an important part of higher education to travel in order to meet our (inter)national colleagues and exchange experiences with those who are living in every corner of the globe? Isn’t it important that we continue to internationalise as a university to grow because we as human beings face global challenges that we should deal with together? How do we do it without flying around the world? 

"How do we do it without flying around the world?"

As Gärdebo and Soldal write: “Flying is great for academia. It is of importance for individual academics: to conduct research, to establish networks, and to pursue a career. You are not just a scientist - you are a travelling scientist.”

Albert Robida, « La station d’aérocars de la Tour Saint-Jacques », in : "Le vingtième siècle", Paris, G. Decaux, 1883


Where scholars traveled by foot in the early days, flying as an academic now belongs to our identity; the ease of commercial airline travel making this possible.

It befits those of us who work in the realm of academia to take this seriously. We have the capacity to create a university that takes a responsibility for society, and not only to deliver high quality research and education but also to question and challenge the world that we are constantly creating through our well-established academic identities.

Here you can read more about academics who engage in The Traveling Scientist and #flyingless issues in higher education:

Flying Less: Reducing Academia’s Carbon Footprint

Creative minds are shrinking research's big carbon footprint

KTH artikel om tjänsteresor

En norskstudie om ”Are mobile researchers more productive and cited”

Stories of scientists who have chosen not to fly

A blog post by Professor Kevin Anderson

Flygvägrande profil ny professor i Uppsala

Klimatpodden : What we do now will change the climate forever

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