Lothar Smith reflects on the function of his trip and tries to combine as many things as possible

Foto Lothar Smit
Flying from one conference to another does not necessarily make you a better scientist
Lothar Smith
Current role
Professor of Human Geography

Lothar Smith is Assistant Professor of Human Geography at Radboud University in Nijmegen. He researches migration and development and specialises in processes of transnationalism between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. In doing so, he collaborates, where possible, with partners in the Global South (Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa). His PhD research focused on transnational influences on the economy of Accra (Ghana) and its people.

1.    How important are short and long-distance travel for you as a professional to do your work and build or maintain your network? 

It very much depends on your field of work, of course. As a social geographer, I conduct research on issues that have not yet been much explored, such as developments on the edges of fast-growing cities. Some of this research can be outsourced to local partners, but for some of it I really want to go into the field myself. Speaking to local residents, looking at the processes unfolding there. I do this in places like Ghana, South Africa, and Sri Lanka. When I go, it is often for a longer period of time, and I usually combine it with some teaching or other activities.

I do have my doubts about people who fly from one conference to another. Doing so doesn't necessarily make you a better researcher. You should think carefully about which three or four flights are essential to you, and how you can organise them best.

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?

I think it can only be achieved with compensation. And then, of course, the question is: what do you compensate it with? But eliminating all flying would cut into the heart of social geography as a discipline. You should definitely think about your carbon footprint, but if you start looking at everything through that lens, it all becomes rather functionalist, and that can sometimes get in the way of the innovativeness of science. 
What I do think is important is reducing short-distance flights. For example, we take our second-year students to Bilbao by bus. That's about 20 hours of travel. For the students, it really takes some getting used to. They think it’s normal to fly these kinds of distances. Flying has also just become too cheap in that respect. That is precisely why we make this investment and go by bus. Because by doing so, we set a precedent and show that it is possible.

3.    How can we encourage employees to travel more sustainably for their work? 
I think it unfortunately requires working with fees and norms. For example, if you catch a flight for a journey of less than seven hours, you won't get a refund for your ticket. At least it will get you thinking. For me, sustainable travel also means thinking about the function of your trip and trying to combine as many things as possible. So when you go to that one gigantically important conference in America, you can combine it with a work visit or some other useful pursuit. Really try to get as much as possible out of your trips, and that can also be a local holiday afterwards.

Sustainable travel to me means thinking about the function of your trip and trying to combine as many things as possible

Incidentally, I’m not in favour of a centralised university-wide travel agency. It's a great idea in theory, but in my experience, these agencies are so cumbersome and slow that you always end up with more expensive tickets. And this is directly at the expense of your research budget. I've seen it happen at all the universities where I worked. But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

4.    Did the COVID-19 pandemic change your perspective on work-related travel and the online alternative? And if so, how?

No, I was always aware of the online possibilities, so for me that hasn't changed. What has surprised me, though, is the speed with which we managed to make online meetings and teaching easy and widely available. A few years ago, it was quite a hassle, for example, to get a guest speaker from elsewhere to dial in. And then all of a sudden we had Zoom. And we had Teams. It happened from necessity, but now it's all available, and I'm happy about that.
It makes us much more flexible. For example, it's now much easier for me to spend three or four weeks abroad, instead of two. And I can still lecture virtually to my students in Nijmegen. The result is that I spend my time more effectively, both here and there. The only thing is that the University is now very keen for students to attend lectures in person again, which doesn't really align with true hybrid working. It may be necessary for a while, but I hope it will not remain the policy in the long run.

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

I totally agree. Taking a train or a personal or shared car are great alternatives. Berlin, for example, is very easy to reach by train, and we should definitely make use of this. I’m also in favour of allowing employees to travel first class if it means they will have the facilities they need to work on the train.

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 think hybrid or even completely virtual conferences are very important. My experience so far, though, has been that it can lead to less involvement: people drop out or start doing other things. But most importantly, as a virtual participant, you really need to have full access to the presentations. Now, too often, virtual participants are kicked out or lose their internet connection. 

The latter is particularly challenging in poorer countries. There is a lot happening in this respect, though. In Ghana, for example, where I spend a lot of time, the ICT sector is growing incredibly fast. But the connections at the universities where I work are not yet up to standard. To improve participation, we could think a bit more about the infrastructure needed to make sure that colleagues from these countries also have full access. 

7.    Anything else you'd like to say about sustainable work-related travel? 

I think we should soon stop talking about sustainable travel and just talk about travel. Because that means that the sustainability aspect goes without saying. The other thing is that I do worry about how quickly society is reverting to an ‘old’ normal. We’ve clearly reached a level of affluence where flying has become automatic. I think we as a University can play an exemplary role in retaining the lessons we learnt in recent years. 
We often talk about outreach and social awareness. We do this, of course, through our research findings. But we could also do it with the way we do things, for example by showing society how we organise our travel, and then sharing our strategy with other sectors, such as the corporate sector.