Researcher’s mobility: Important lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis

Mobility is commonly understood as an essential part of every researcher’s career. While the recent COVID-19 crisis has brought all mobility to a halt, this is also a good moment to critically review the constant need and necessity of being mobile as a researcher. Recent studies have found that mobility is among the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions of knowledge organizations such as universities. With universities setting ever more ambitions climate targets, the role of mobility has to be critically reviewed. Here lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis, which has enabled the wider use of online technologies to replace physicals meetings, can be very valuable. In this blog, post-doctoral researcher Stefan Baumeister will discuss researcher’s mobility from both the viewpoints of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis.

The possibilities of researcher mobility

Mobility is an essential part of every researcher’s career. It is mobility that allows us to network and meet other researchers, attend training or enable us to collect certain data. Mobility gives us the chance to exchange new ideas with distant colleagues, to write papers or applications together with others and it helps us also to change our environment and sometimes even to escape our teaching responsibilities for a while. Mobility can also be a great source for inspiration and a source of learning as new influences can reshape our thinking and teach us looking outside the box. Academic mobility comes in many different forms, it can range from attending a 2 days conference all the way to a full scale research visit at another university lasting for an entire year.

For me personally, mobility has played a crucial role both during my Ph.D. studies and after graduation. Mobility provided me finally with the opportunity to meet and collaborate with the right scholars in my field as I have been working quite isolated on my own research topics for most of the time. Mobility started for me when I attended a Ph.D. student summer school in Denmark in 2012. This is where I met other Ph.D. students working on similar topics for the first time. This is also where I started to build crucial networks that have lasted until today. The next key event for me was the first international conference I attended the following year in Italy. Here, for the first time, I met all the established researchers in my field. I was able to match faces to the authors whose work I had been reading and citing and got to know many of them in person. Here, I also presented my own Ph.D. topic for the first time in front of an audience, which provided me with constructive feedback and validated my approach.

One year later in August 2014, I was able to embark on one of my so far longest stretches of mobility, a 12-months research visit at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I was lucky enough to obtain a Fulbright Scholarship in order to finance this 1-year visit. This was the first time that I had the possibility to conduct research with other scholars in my field on a daily base. Further, this research visit allowed me to escape from all the responsibilities I had back home in terms of teaching and administrative tasks that naturally come when one is working for an international Master’s Degree program. Being finally able to fully concentrate on my research and collaborate with scholars in my field helped me to write all the remaining papers needed in order to complete my Ph.D. When looking back, I must say I would probably never have finished my Ph.D. without having done this research visit in the U.S.!

Now in the post-doc phase, mobility still plays a crucial role. Attending annual conferences where my expertise is known and where I meet leading scholars in my field on a regular base is essential. In addition, in the past year, I also went for a 3 months research visit to Griffith University in Australia, which turned out to be a major boost for my research career as it opened up so many new avenues for collaboration besides the luxury of once again being able to focus on research alone.

Environmental effects are troubling

Nevertheless, while mobility turns out to be so essential for researcher’s careers it also comes at a very high price in terms of climate impacts. My flight to Australia alone added 1200 kg of CO2 to my carbon footprint! In fact, as a recently conducted study at our university found, mobility is one of the major sources of our university’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the university’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030, mobility as an issue needs to be addressed. The study further found that especially air travel has a major share in our university’s carbon footprint. This fact has essentially drawn attention to my own research as I have been focusing on the question of how to reduce the climate impacts of the aviation industry for the past 10 years. An adjustment of the travel policy of our university is therefore unavoidable if we want to become carbon neutral within the next 10 years. As technological improvements in efficiency can in no way keep up with the dramatic growth of the aviation industry, the only way to tackle aviation’s climate impacts lays in the reduction of demand, meaning flying less.

While flying less didn’t see like an option in 2019, a record year for the aviation industry, everything changed in 2020. Only weeks after I had returned from Australia last December, the first news of a novel virus spreading fast in China and soon after also in Europe and other parts of the world emerged. Borders were closed, flights got cancelled and all mobility, including at our university, naturally came to a hold. The one week seminar in June I was about to attend in Norway, in which we would have discussed how to reduce the carbon footprint of universities, got cancelled. The same happened to a conference in Sydney in July in which my paper was already accepted and which could have also given me the chance to catch up with my colleagues from my previous research visit at Griffith University. I was about to host my first ever research visitor from Australia this autumn, who was not able to come to Jyväskylä despite arranging full funding for his stay.

The pandemic is changing the (academic) world

Instead, we all went into a lock down and started working from home. We learned how to use Teams, Zoom and so many other online applications that replaced meetings in real life. After many conferences and seminars got cancelled during the spring, more and more of those events slowly moved online and it is once again possible to attend international conferences and seminars for example in Sydney, but now without the need to even leave your own home. Although we still miss out the small talks between the sessions and during lunch or dinner, we are at least again able to show presence in our designated research communities.

New technologies have taken over and have made traveling obsolete. This has saved the university a lot of money but even more important, it has also helped us to significantly reduce our carbon footprint, getting us closer to our climate goals. At the same time, it has also reduced our need to travel and being away from home for longer periods.

While some might be worried that they could lose out because they no longer can meet other researchers around the globe, we should also keep in mind that this travel bans have effected more or less all scholars around the world. Although most of us don’t consider the quality of online meetings equal to physical meetings, I am sure that new and better technologies will be invented that will be able to raise the quality of online meetings significantly. Virtual reality (VR) and hologram technology could provide us with totally new experiences that go far beyond a Teams call. In addition, the increased speed of the internet and the introduction of 5G could further enhance them.

I personally express great hopes that we have learned important lessons from the COVID crisis and that we are now able to master the much larger climate crisis ahead of us. By replacing our mobility with new forms of communication, which we were able to acquaint ourselves with during the Corona crisis, we as researchers are now able to do our fair share in helping to mitigate climate impacts.

This should be in our all common interest.


Stefan Baumeister
Postdoctoral Researcher
JSBE, Corporate Environmental Management, School of Resource Wisdom