Making science sustainable

Author: Franco P. Bonafé
Max Planck Institute for Structure and Dynamics of Matter

Public knowledge shows that the world is experiencing a climate emergency, which will cause major suffering to the population unless critical transformations are achieved. Among these transformations, the recent statement signed by more than 11,000 scientists mentions ceasing consumption of fossil fuels, cutting down meat from our diets, and halting deforestation as well as population growth. Human activities that prevent these indicators from improving are closely related to excessive consumption. Tackling the global problem demands better education, consensus and political decisions to tax fossil fuels, encourage the consumption of less meat, decrease food waste and increase energy efficiency. This is what the global climate strikes, the school strikes and many lawsuits are demanding and slowly achieving. But locally and within every organization there is also work to be done in education, measurement, policy and regulation, to drive its activities towards a sustainable future.

Since 2015, the goal of working towards sustainability in many institutes of the Max Planck Society (MPS) has been spreading. This year in May, at the 1st Workshop on Sustainability in the Max Planck Society, the Sustainability Network was finally established. “It was created to bring together people in the MPS around sustainability issues and drive both local and Max-Planck-wide initiatives to reduce our work environmental impact”, says Dr. Tanguy Fardet, postdoctoral researcher in the MPI for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen and member of the interim steering committee.

The initiative is powered by a joint effort of many people from all areas within the MPS. “The groups comprise members of different levels: laboratory assistants, PhD students, postdocs, team leaders and administrative staff members. They dedicate private time and effort in their honorary activity outside working hours”, declares senior officer of the MPS, Dr. Christine Gieraths, also a member of the interim steering committee. “The MPI sustainability groups wish to contribute to a more sustainable management of the basic science research process, wherever improvement is conceivable: e.g. in labs, buildings, travelling, supplies, energy, etc.”, explains Dr. Gieraths.

The problems

Through identifying the environmental impact of our work-related activities, we can begin to prioritize our actions. “Depending on the source, between 50-70% of our impact comes from business trips flights to conferences and meetings [1]”, says Evelyn Medawar, member of the steering group and PhD candidate at the MPI for Human Brain and Cognitive Sciences in Leipzig. “Next would be energy expenditure due to heavy lab equipment, which could be economised at certain points [2]. In the case of neuroimaging, for example, my own study emits about 115 t CO2 only for the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans [3] – compensating these emissions would require 115 years of following a vegan diet – or 115 individuals switching to a vegan diet for one year. Other universities such as University College London state that 50% of emissions come from lab space [4]. We should try to estimate those numbers for MPS and try to reduce them step by step.”

When asked about the most high-impact contributions, Fardet answers that it depends on the both the type of lab and the indicator. “If we focus solely on the carbon footprint, the investigations done voluntarily in some labs and institutes have shown that it is often overwhelmingly associated to general transportation (commuting and business trips), accounting for up to 80% of the emissions. However, the detailed contributions can vary significantly (though transport is always significant) and carbon footprint is only one facet of our impact. Other measures have been proposed to assess the resource consumption [5] which would be extremely useful to evaluate the impact of experimental labs and include the end of life of the equipment.” The use of paper in academia is not a major concern nowadays, as opposed the general idea. “Paper usage, though it is often brought forward, is probably very insignificant and going towards ‘paperless offices’ is probably a terrible idea if it involves increasing the number of screens and servers”, points out Fardet.

Among the most important goals of the Network, the interviewed participants emphasize: providing a catalogue of desirable measures for the whole MPS to have a guide that would help to improve our ecological footprint (covering energy, mobility, waste, material and resources, communication, food, supplies, biodiversity); initiate working groups on a broad list of topics based on a survey, to provide detailed assessments of the current situation in the institutes and propose actions; start discussing with MPS headquarters on the general policies that may hinder local actions on these topics; vote on a permanent steering committee, elaborate statutes and to work on a catalogue of measures to be handed over to the president of the MPG.

Are you wondering what YOU can do to make a change? We collected some input from the interim steering committee for individual measures which can help in this process to become more energy and climate aware.

Here are the top 7 recommendations to start with:

1. Spread the word amongst your networks and co-workers and current and past affiliations

2. Get involved in their local group or in the MPS network and focus on collective actions

3. Consider sustainability when planning future studies and experiments (open science focus: open material, open data, publish negative results)

4. Reduce travel, consumption and dietary footprint (check out and sign the #Unter1000 movement on Twitter)

5. Using a bike (if possible, non-electric) to get to work

6. Be conscious of the number of electronic devices used

7. Contribute to and possibly actively organize waste-aware behavior (also contact companies about ‘green’ practices for shipping and recycling lab products)

Connect and discuss

The participants of the Sustainability Network encourage us all to go out and talk to the public, participate in events, newspapers, podcasts, blogs… all media channels are important if they allow is to discuss more about research, sustainability, open science and other topics. Backing our science with solid knowledge and references, and creating an open dialogue between involved parties, is key when debating with others about these topics. “In the end, a spirit of cooperation will be more effective than a confrontational attitude”, as Dr. Gieraths points out.

Furthermore, there are plenty of options to go beyond discussions. “In such cases, one can also start getting involved in local initiatives in one’s neighborhood to get in touch with a broader community, support local projects and farmers, send money to an ethical bank, stop using the GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) and tell people about their environmental and societal impacts, support free open source software initiatives, and so on”, mentions Fardet.

Joining social movements, scientific initiatives and public demonstrations is also important to make the crisis visible. Medawar mentions that some initiatives that we can support as scientists are Scientists4Future and Extinction Rebellion, but always keeping track of talking to friends, reading papers on climate and environmental science [6], organize public demonstrations and events on the topic of sustainability. For foreign scientists it is also a good idea to get in touch and support the initiatives of their home country. But as scientists, we should keep in mind that our engagement must be strongly dialogue-oriented and remain benevolent, to convince others that reaching a sustainable future is a common goal of all people, scientists and non-scientists alike.

References and other resources

1.  Wynes, S., & Donner, S. D. (2018). Addressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Business-Related Air Travel at Public Institutions: A Case Study of the University of British Columbia. Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions





6. Such as the IPCC reports, for instance the SR15

Illustration: annca from Pixabay