Academic conferences: a scholarly pursuit, or a tax-funded assault on the environment?
As we move into the second semester at our local universities, I have a confession to make. As a former academic staff member at a local university here in Hong Kong, I took a couple of holidays compliments of our taxpayers.
These trips abroad were not completely fun and games, mind you. I did have to spend a day or two as a conference participant and deliver a presentation, but the days prior or following my speech were at least partly paid for by my employer, as was the airfare.
And not only that; by providing annual funding for presenting one’s research at academic conferences, universities, both here and abroad, encourage their staff to become participants in these communities of scholarship, and count conference presentations as a legitimate, albeit lowly, deliverable for academic staff.
Although it is true that some large and well-established conferences are great meeting venues for sharing new research and networking for future collaboration, the reality is clouded by several concerns related to deception, questionable usefulness and environmental sustainability.
Academic conferences, like events in other fields, vary in quality. Among the top ones, the research presented tends to be high quality, although ground-breaking research in most disciplines largely arrives via published articles in journals. Conference presentations are mostly for preliminary research.
Because top-level conferences have high rejection rates, academic staff who have been rejected have to pay their own way because local universities tend to fund travel to conferences only if their professors have been accepted to present. This is where other conferences come to the rescue.
Among the conferences that do not qualify as top-level are two types; second tier and predatory. Second-tier conferences are legitimate venues for presenting research, but because they do not rank at the top, they tend to accept all presentation proposals, guaranteeing a free trip to any scholar who applies.
Similar to top-level conferences, except for certain disciplines such as medicine, the research presented is seldom cited, which means it disappears.
Then there are the predatory conferences, which can cover multiple disciplines, and whose purpose is purely mercenary. They are invariably held in what are perceived to be exotic locations at strategic times of year – think Bali in February.
Their website home pages often show photos of gondolas (Venice), beaches and palm trees (Bali) or cherry blossoms (Kyoto in early April). Acceptance, of course, is guaranteed, but this would never be stated on the conference website. Needless to say it is highly unlikely that any significant research findings have ever been delivered at a predatory conference.
Truth to tell, for many academic staff, conferences are occasions to mix with old friends and explore a new city largely at the expense of the taxpayer. As a former head of department, over the years, I was able to gain some insight into the nuances of conference attendance because staff needed my approval before stepping on a plane.
And while it true that many staff used conference attendance to share their research findings and made good scholarly use of their funding, there were a good number of others who enjoyed annual holidays disguised as an intellectual pursuit paid for by the university.
But this dodgy practice is actually not my main concern. Every profession has dubious loopholes that some employees will exploit. Rather, what raises my ire is the damage done to the environment by professors travelling in their masses while fully encouraged by our universities.
Take the example of a recent large, top-level conference in the field of education held in Toronto which many of my colleagues attended. From Hong Kong, a return flight, 15 hours each way, results, by one estimate, in a carbon footprint of close to four tonnes. These four tonnes amount to about eight months’ worth of footprint of the average Hong Konger.
In other words, a huge amount of carbon has been released into the atmosphere from Hong Kong academics just for the purpose of delivering a 20-minute presentation. Often these precious minutes are spent in front of a handful of participants, who afterwards quickly move to the next session, unless they head out for a city tour – again, all fully funded by their universities, i.e., the taxpayer.
What makes this little scam even more ludicrous and environmentally irresponsible is the availability of alternatives. Videoconferencing or webcasts are now commonplace and generate next to no carbon footprint.
And while having a meeting through a computer monitor is no substitute for interaction in the flesh, it is behaviour like casually emitting tonnes of carbon for annual junkets around the world that has got us in the warming mess that we presently inhabit.
Instead of continuing the status quo, the University Grants Commission here in Hong Kong should be taking the lead in environmental sustainability, let alone the fiscal kind, by revisiting the whole funding model that encourages academic staff at universities to attend conferences.