Fly or die: air travel and the internationalisation of academic careers

Yolande Strengers (@yolandestreng)
Senior Lecturer, RMIT University and recent Visiting Fellow at the DEMAND centre in Lancaster

Business air travel is on the rise globally, especially in knowledge organisations such as universities (Lassen 2006; Lassen et al. 2006). Academics who study energy consumption, climate change and sustainability find themselves in an especially awkward position. Their job is to develop ideas about how to reduce and address a growing list of environmental and energy problems, but to take these ideas to audiences around the world they ‘need’ to travel.

My short-term position as a Visiting Researcher from Australia in the DEMAND Centre (UK) is a case in point. In responding to a call for international visitors I found myself on a 25+ hour plane trip from one side of the planet to the other. The intention? To work with DEMAND researchers and contribute to the Centre’s ambition of developing new ways to think about reducing energy demand, including that associated with travel.

For academics, it’s easy to justify travelling around the world on a regular basis, particularly if you live in Australia or much of Asia, and especially if you subscribe to the widely held view that cutting edge intellectual activity is always going on somewhere else. In Australia one practical consequence of a pervasive sense of intellectual isolation is a continual ‘need’ to visit Europe and America to advance careers and get ‘on the map’. We know full well the environmental damage of our flying, but for the time being this remains an uncomfortable fact of successful academic life.

Few potential ‘solutions’ really work. ICTs and telecommunications are not the answer to this problem: in many ways they have served to proliferate and enable new forms of meeting and collaboration that depend on flying. Neither do more efficient aeroplanes provide the answer. Instead, they have done a fantastic job of making flying faster, cheaper and more convenient. Carbon offsets are similarly dubious. Kevin Anderson from the UK’s Tyndall Institute recently declared that carbon offsets are ‘without scientific legitimacy, … dangerously misleading, and almost certainly contribute to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth’ (

Some might suggest that the answer lies in changing individual behaviour. However, nothing reveals the inadequacy of ‘behaviour change’ as a response more clearly than flying. Knowing all I know, I still get on a plane, although perhaps not as regularly as I think I should. Why? Not because I am a disinterested environmental citizen or because I have a secret passion for flying, but because my career seemingly depends on me doing so.

My experience underlines the point that what is at stake is not flying itself, but what it enables: the interacting, collaborating, promoting and collegial ‘work’ that I am able to do when meeting face-to-face with others. Flying enables these practices and possibilities (Strengers, 2014). Although other modes of transport, such as ships and trains, could feasibly replace flying, in many instances the time involved in travelling by anything other than air (especially for Australians and Asians visiting the Global North) renders these modes impractical amidst other personal and career-related commitments.

It is tempting to blame flyers and call for greater individual discretion and restraint. But responsibility and change does not (soley) rest with individual flyers; it lies with the expectations reproduced and normalised through flying, some of which are institutionalised through the academic system itself (Ackers 2008).

There is now a global ambition for universities to become more global — something Storme et al. (2013) refer to as ‘the institutionalized internationalization fury’. In the academic world, the value of having international links and connections is not new (monastic scholars travelled widely) and there may be a real if somewhat intangible benefit in the wide circulation and cross-fertilisation of ideas. However, as it becomes easier to realise this ambition (via air travel) so the significance of establishing and maintaining an international reputation increases.

In many institutions, including my own, having ‘international networks’ or collaborating internationally are highly prized scholarly attributes. Promotions are awarded, contracts are signed, prizes are won, and grant money is distributed as a direct result of evidence that someone has wide ranging international connections.

A disproportionate number of awards and funds are allocated to Early Career Researchers (ECRs) for the purpose of building such a network – the implication being that for research to ‘count’ and advance, it must be taken to an international audience and acknowledged internationally. The importance of building such a reputation is underlined during the PhD – an academic’s research training. Students are encouraged to attend international conferences as a means of making contacts, exchanging ideas and encountering new ways of thinking – and there are grants to enable them to do so. This continues throughout an academic’s career: an invitation to give an international keynote address constitutes ‘evidence’ that your work matters, leading some to conclude that the further you travel to present your work the further your impact has reached. Such unspoken assumptions reproduce the need to be global in ways that have become important both to the continuity of employment and to academics’ ability to ‘do work’. The choice — if such it is — appears simple: fly or your career will wither and die.

For these reasons, it doesn’t seem particularly helpful, or healthy, to think about flying as another site of personal responsibility. While the opportunities and connections that come from flying can be intellectually and personally satisfying, frequent travelling often has significant personal costs that are discounted, ignored or simply not discussed for fear of seeming unprofessional or less than fully committed. University health and safety audits focus on the placement of smoke alarms, provision of first aid, and the use of potentially dangerous objects; but ignore the toll on physical and mental health that comes through the academy’s increasing internationalisation. For many academics, flying and the physical and geographical distances it creates between our families and loved ones is a source of ongoing tension, stress and anxiety.

There are significant unaccounted ethical concerns here too, such as the career disadvantages experienced potentially by those who are not as mobile as others, including women with children, families, the unwell or disabled (Jöns 2011). Somewhat paradoxically, the academy promotes ‘equal opportunity’ whilst simultaneously advancing careers and awarding grants on the basis of academics’ ability to participate in highly unequal forms of mobility.

Equally, academics are collectively implicated in reproducing a system that calls for travel. Through continually flying they continue to normalise this activity, and it is possible that if they were to fly less, or not at all, the system would change.  But in many ways the answer does not depend on flying as such: rather, the underlying challenge is to generate and reproduce new forms of value and collaboration in the global academy. This might involve changing the ways in which grant and promotion applications are assessed, thinking again about how colleagues’ contributions to their disciplines are evaluated and judged, and working out what a ‘local’ university might look like. This would involve challenging the production of value in academic institutions — what should be valued and what is valuable — and in the process, questioning the institutionalised significance of ‘international reputations’ that are built on and revealed through frequent long distance travel.

Thanks to colleagues from the DEMAND Centre (Lancaster University, UK) and the Centre for Urban Research (RMIT University, Australia) for inspiring conversations on this topic.

Comment from Elizabeth Shove, Co-Director of DEMAND

The DEMAND centre (Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand) is one of six end use energy demand research centres (see for details of all six centres). DEMAND is distinctive in that it asks basic questions like those raised above: it focuses on what energy and mobility is for and on the changing social and institutional arrangements of which energy demand is a part. Given these aims, it is perhaps ironic that DEMAND has a programme of international visiting fellowships.  From the Centre’s point of view, these are hugely important in bringing people into the centre for short visits, and in making links with individuals and other research groups outside the UK.  DEMAND’s research agenda is definitely not confined to one country, the fellowships provide a means of establishing relevant connections and of learning from others’ experiences. They also ensure that we are confronted and challenged in ways that would not otherwise occur. There is no doubt that we will refer to the number of international visitors we have had in our annual reports, and in our accounts of the Centre’s value and impact. The Centre is part of the same academic system that Yolande describes and this document is one small outcome of that system.  So should we have international visiting fellows?  I’d say ‘yes’.  Should we think about what they bring to the centre, should we wonder about how many we support and how long they stay? Definitely ‘yes’. Should we continue to develop forms of international collaboration that do not depend on frequent flying: again the answer is ‘yes’. Should DEMAND initiate some discussion about this topic — and should it prompt people to think about how and why academic life and flying have become entwined.  For sure: this is our core business.  So thanks, Yolande, for initiating this discussion.


P.S. We are already looking forward to your next visit.


Ackers, L 2008, ‘Internationalisation, Mobility and Metrics: A New Form of Indirect Discrimination?’, Minerva, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 411-35.

Jöns, H 2011, ‘Transnational academic mobility and gender’, Globalisation, Societies and Education, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 183-209.

Lassen, C 2006, ‘Aeromobility and work’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 301-12.

Lassen, C, Laugen, BT & Næss, P 2006, ‘Virtual mobility and organizational reality – a note on the mobility needs in knowledge organisations’, Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, vol. 11, no. 6, pp. 459-63.

Storme, T, Beaverstock, JV, Derrudder, B, Faulconbridge, JR & Witlox, F 2013, ‘How to cope with mobility expectations in academia: Individual travel strategies of tenured academics at Ghent University, Flanders’, Research in Transportation Business & Management, vol. 9, pp. 12-20.

Strengers, Y 2014, ‘Meeting in the Global Workplace: Air Travel, Telepresence and the Body’, Mobilities.

Kris de Decker, DEMAND visitor February 2016, talks about (not) flying to Hong Kong

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4 Responses to Fly or die: air travel and the internationalisation of academic careers

  1. Below is a very quick response as most of my thoughts are already out in the ether; for example:

    • Hypocrites in the air …
    • New Internationalist debate…
    • Evangelising from 32 thousand feet …

    But picking up on a few points from Yolande’s piece:

    The title Fly or Die is either ironic or misses the point.
    A quarter of a century since the first IPCC report, we have achieved nothing tangible in terms of our rocketing emissions – this despite flocks of academics jetting around the world dispensing their pearls of wisdom. Climate change is a cumulative problem – and every day we fail we condemn more low-emitters to die – the language may be unattractive – but what we undertake as academics is action research – we are not neutral observers. So shouldn’t it read Fly and Die?

    It’s “easy” for academics to justify flying.
    I have not come across any group that does not make similar arguments for their own special interest. Our academic study depends on government spending derived from taxation – collected from people and organisations that also “need” to fly to compete in our globalised economy to make profits on which tax is levied to pay for research council funding. So which group/s is it that should be curtailing their aviation emissions – and would they agree?

    I’m not sure anyone suggests individual behaviour is the “answer”.
    But surely there is a role for repeated and growing examples of individuals questioning unquestioned routines and catalysing action at a broader policy level. This in turn begins to engender changes in expectations/values etc. But whilst those of us with all the necessary information at our fingertips continue to pontificate from 32000 feet it is difficult to envisage from where a timely catalyst will emerge.

    Academic endeavour demands fast travel or our careers wither on the vine.
    I think the recognition that “monastic scholars travelled widely” captures this; they typically adopted terrestrial, marine & much lower carbon forms of engagement. The temporal nature of responding to climate change may need us to speed this up – but an Internet electron wins hands down over Mr Whittle’s finest jet.

    Concluding that flying “remains an uncomfortable fact of successful academic life” reinforces the status quo and marginalises those choosing different metrics of “success”. Repeatedly we use the expectations of our own academic community as a tautological justification for acting in accord with those expectations. Conforming may pay the mortgage but change often emerges from those not conforming – though the latter is certainly less comfortable than the former. As for early career researchers – I grew up when it was often those without grey hair that asked the difficult questions. Ok things have change and job security may not be what it once was – but given the devastating scale of the stakes a little less comfort is surely a price worth paying.

  2. Moz says:

    Academics are supposed to be more aware of the problems and solutions than the average person. They’re also at the cutting edge of what is possible in terms of ICT, video-conferencing, whatever. If you can’t dramatically reduce or eliminate air travel, what hope for the average person?

    I suggest that Dr Strengers and the DEMAND Centre are exactly the combination that should be leading by example. A smart young scientist studying how we can reduce the scale of climate change, paired up with a major centre studying how to reduce energy demand. But as pointed out above this has to be done the same way monks did it in the middle ages – shipping warm bodies around the globe.

  3. Glad to see this dialogue occurring. Both as an academic engaged with professional associations, networks and research collaborations constantly calling for air travel, and as a member of my university’s climate action planning team, I’m constantly reminded of the significance of air travel in the carbon footprint of academics/researchers and our institutions.

    And, as a sociologist, I feel particularly compelled to troubleshoot the institutional arrangements at the heart of the problem. One approach I’d like to see implemented is the use of (dis)incentives. These can come from grant making agencies that dock air travel-heavy grant budgets, or from universities that provide internal funding for professional travel by putting limits on the amount of funding available to senior scholars for air travel. In the latter case, early career scholars are not constrained while late career scholars, whose career advancement is far less dependent on air travel, can either curtail air travel or find alternative means. These disincentives might be mirrored by incentives in the form of higher travel budget limits for grant proposals using low carbon forms of travel. Policy-oriented researchers more sophisticated than me would need to think through these recommendations for their potential to backfire.

    Proposing such solutions, even if they are ultimately not practical to implement, may at least open up deliberative space for discussions of the more radical but imperative reorienting of institutional expectations and professional requirements. Lastly, and more controversially, such a deliberative space might also allow us to acknowledge and perhaps even confront the sense of entitlement that is used to justify much of what might otherwise be seen as inessential air travel.

  4. Emmet Fox says:

    This is something that struck me when I interviewed two academics for my thesis on public climate change receptivity. Both were very much involved in sustainability and both felt compelled to fly for their careers. I recently saw Naomi Klein being criticised on twitter for her flying (caveat twitter). I myself, as an academic just starting out, am already caught up in this as my viva examiner is flying in from the US (the process is already set in motion) and guiltily I am very excited about meeting her as I am particularly interested in her work. Anderson’s point above is an important one. I have seen similar excuses from environmental activists arguing that their individual behaviours won’t make a difference as long as the current carbon-heavy system remains. Although the internationalization of the university system is a strong determining force I have corroborated in this hypocrisy for curiosity and the possibility of building important networks. Surely many other academics are doing the same.

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