Barbara Müller is actively involved in the topic of sustainability

Foto Barbara Muller
You can definitely be a good researcher if you fly less
Barbara Müller
Current role
researcher and lecturer (associate professor, UHD) in Communication Science

Barbara Muller is a researcher and lecturer (associate professor, UHD) in Communication Science. If she has to fly for work, it is mostly to attend conferences or visit colleagues, but since Barbara's network is mainly based in Europe, she usually doesn't have to fly. In addition, she has long preferred to travel by train, which is usually no problem for her network.

Barbara is actively involved in sustainability. This involvement began when Barbara was a member of the Representative Council, and she is now the main initiator for the prioritising of this topic at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Her goal is to serve sustainability in the broad sense and to give sustainability a more important place in education and research. Sustainable work-related travel is part of this. 

We looked at the initiatives that were already in place within the University and how we could connect to them. Then came the pandemic, and there was virtually no travel. Now we’re working to see how we can hold on to this. There is no need to attend every mini-conference, and we are more selective in the choices we make.

1.    How important are short and long-distance travel for you as a professional to do your work and build or maintain your network? In other words, can you be a good researcher if you fly less?
Because of the phase I’m in in my career, conferences are less important to me. It's nice to see people I know, but it has become more of a socialising thing. For my work, I can now just as easily connect with people by email and/or Zoom. I no longer need to expand my network very much. When I invite someone to come here, it's not for a short talk. I make plans for a week or so. I make sure my guest gives a talk, meets some people, etc. 

As a starting PhD student, it’s harder to make contact by just sending someone you don't know an email: ‘I would like to work with you’. Plus, meeting people is important for new PhD candidates so they can show what they do, get immediate feedback, and see something of the world. When I establish contacts abroad for my PhD candidates, I make sure they can stay for a few months, for example. 

You can definitely be a good researcher if you fly less.

So as far as I’m concerned, you can definitely be a good researcher if you fly less. It depends in part on your field whether and to what extent you need to travel. But it's mostly about travelling more consciously. A good researcher asks themselves: What do I want from this conference? Who do I want to reach? What is my goal? Make a plan in advance about who you want to talk to, etc. If you have a good plan, I think it's OK to travel. In which case, once every one, two, or three years is probably enough, because you get much more out of your trip if you prepare carefully. As a team, you can then see, for example, who has what motivation and whose turn it is to go. And in this way you can also alleviate any fears young researchers may have of being judged for not attending that one big conference or not spending much time abroad. This means that we need to include motivation, including the sustainability aspect, in the evaluation process. This requires a change in culture. How will you assess people? This is no longer about whether a researcher attended ten conferences, or spent a lot of time abroad, but more about whether this person attended three conferences with a good motivation. In that sense, I think it fits nicely with the Recognition & Rewards programme. Because that’s all about what we want to value in our researchers and lecturers. I hope that in time, sustainability and sustainable work-related travel will be included in the programme.

2.    Radboud University and the Radboud university medical center aim to achieve CO₂-neutral travel by 2030. Do you think that it's feasible, and why or why not?
Actually, people in industrialised countries should travel less, and be in the minus to make room for developing countries to travel more. Because if these countries had to be CO₂ neutral, then, to put it bluntly, they could not develop. So, as far as I'm concerned, we can set the target higher. 

Whether CO₂ neutral is feasible depends on what it means. If we just keep flying and we purchase CO₂ offsets then I think it's feasible, and that it can even be done sooner than 2030. But actually, I don't think we should want to do it that way, because that’s just more self-deception. We can get much further if we shift the culture.

3.    How can we encourage employees to travel more sustainably for their work? 
I think a clear policy is a first step, as long as this also includes regular reviews to see where things can be made more sustainable still. Furthermore, I would be happy with an overview of tips for departments so that they can then see for themselves what can or cannot be implemented in their context, which will obviously differ from one discipline to another. And I think more senior researchers should lead the way by setting a good example and e.g. travelling by train, but also by travelling less, so that junior researchers have more room to travel. 

4.    Did the COVID-19 pandemic change your perspective on work-related travel and the online alternative? And if so, how?
During the pandemic, I discovered that online meetings work quite well, and that the same is true of digitally organised conferences. That is not something we could have imagined beforehand. For the social aspect, too, all sorts of things have been devised to retain the coffee chats online. For example, I recently visited the US and Japan online. Most of the people I talk to are fine with it, and they don't need anything else.

5.    What do you think of the policy to stop flying to cities that can be reached within seven hours with sustainable alternatives?

The 7-hour policy could be stricter.

As far as I’m concerned, this policy is not strict enough. It now focuses mainly on the time you spend on the road, but without including the overall savings. For example, a train journey might take longer but be more efficient in terms of time you have for work, or to sleep on the night train. It also saves you from having to queue to check in.

6.    Travelling long distance to attend conferences can be a privilege, putting established researchers from wealthy institutions at an advantage. How can we ensure that scientists worldwide have more equal opportunities to build an international network, regardless of their background? In other words, how do you make conferences and research more inclusive? 
I hope hybrid forms remain and that everyone can join in. The costs of live-streaming or recording should be low enough that everyone can connect. If conferences remain hybrid, we will require fewer large venues, which will also reduce costs. Or we can get richer countries to co-finance, let them pay a little more.

7.    Anything else you'd like to say about sustainable work-related travel?
What would make me really happy is if it was encouraged or even automatically organised by the University that any air miles travelled by employees are compensated. So that the University is committing to automatically planting trees for every kilometre flown. It does feel like buying our way out, but until there is an actual culture shift, this is what we can do. If someone has to travel, we can at least compensate for it a little.