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Our planet is experiencing severe and accelerating climate and ecological breakdown caused by human activity. As professional scientists, we are better placed than most to understand the data that evidence this fact. However, like most other people, we ignore this inconvenient truth and lead our daily lives, at home and at work, as if these facts weren’t true. In particular, we overlook that our own neuroscientific research practices, from our laboratory experiments to our often global travel, help drive climate change and ecosystem damage. We also hold privileged positions of authority in our societies but rarely speak out. Here, we argue that to help society create a survivable future, we neuroscientists can and must play our part. In April 2021, we delivered a symposium at the British Neuroscience Association meeting outlining what we think neuroscientists can and should do to help stop climate breakdown. Building on our talks (Box 1), we here outline what the climate and ecological emergencies mean for us as neuroscientists. We highlight the psychological mechanisms that block us from taking action, and then outline what practical steps we can take to overcome these blocks and work towards sustainability. In particular, we review environmental issues in neuroscience research, scientific computing, and conferences. We also highlight the key advocacy roles we can all play in our institutions and in society more broadly. The need for sustainable change has never been more urgent, and we call on all (neuro)scientists to act with the utmost urgency. Keywords Climate crisis, ecology, global warming, sustainability, scientific practice, laboratory procedures, conferences, advocacy Received: 24 September 2021; accepted: 17 December 2021 global collapse in biodiversity, including pollinators that we rely Introduction on for food production (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Human activity is destabilising our planetary equilibrium by Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2019). The destroying ecosystems and changing the climate. We are causing area of agriculturally productive land is shrinking (Mbow et al., climate change by releasing exponentially increasing quantities 2019). of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thereby warming the Climate breakdown is for practical purposes irreversible: planet. Current rates of emissions (‘business as usual’) are pro- even if we were to cease carbon emissions tomorrow, it will be jected to push the planet to at least 3°C of heating compared to decades before atmospheric temperatures return to baseline and pre-industrial baseline by the end of the century. Together with centuries before the oceans, which are a huge heat sink, cool direct ecosystem damage from deforestation and pollution, this is having calamitous effects on ecosystems worldwide. Already today, with temperatures at 1.1°C–1.3°C above pre-industrial School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Falmer, UK levels, we are witnessing loss of agricultural land, forests, and Sustainable UCL, University College London, London, UK fisheries, as well as more frequent extreme weather events such Research Management & Innovation Directorate, King’s College London, London, UK as heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, and hurricanes. The Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College near-term (within current lifetimes) projected results of business London, London, UK as usual include crop failures, water shortages, poverty and hun- Cognitive Psychology Unit, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands ger, mass migration, and conflict (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018). Rising sea levels threaten many coastal cities, which house Corresponding author: around 10% of the world’s population (Hallegatte et al., 2013). Charlotte L. Rae, School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Pevensey Warming oceans are causing widespread loss of marine life, Building, Falmer BN1 9QH, UK. much of which is an important food source. We are undergoing a Email: email@example.com Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage). 2 Brain and Neuroscience Advances Box 1. BNA 2021 symposium: ‘Green neuroscience’ (YouTube, slides). Charlotte Rae – The environmental impacts of cognitive neuroscience, from liquid helium to big data: what’s our footprint? Martin Farley – Sustainable laboratory research: LEAF and green lab efforts Anne Urai – Decarbonizing science: action in academic communities and institutions Kate Jeffery – Changing minds: how neuroscientists can influence public and political action on the climate and ecological crisis again, and the ice caps re-form (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018). from blazing wildfires in California and Australia to heat waves Negative emissions technologies do not yet exist that can be engulfing the Pacific Northwest and severe floods across Europe. deployed at scale on the urgent timeline required (Fuss et al., One of us experienced weeks of disruption to data collection, 2014). Similarly, increasing biological sinks for carbon, such as when a tropical storm in New York caused prolonged power out- by mass reforestation, will take decades that we do not have at ages and forced laboratories to close down. These extreme our disposal (Nolan et al., 2021). Species extinction cannot be weather events are not a manageable ‘new normal’, but only a reversed. We must therefore focus on immediate prevention, as harbinger of more extreme climate fluctuations to come. If we do there is no meaningful cure. not change course in the next decades, the destabilising effects of There is also a moral dimension to the climate crisis. Affluent, environmental catastrophes will severely threaten our ability to developed countries are the strongest contributors to global heat- pursue neuroscience unhindered. Furthermore, one might reason- ing (Nielsen et al., 2021), whereas those in the global South, who ably ask what the point of neuroscience is, if the brains that we contributed little to global emissions and are less well-equipped seek to understand are, themselves, under existential threat. to deal with climate disruptions, most severely suffer the conse- It is clear what needs to be done. By rapidly ceasing our quences. Furthermore, our generation is the last in a position to burning of fossil fuels, shifting to renewable energy, cleaning prevent irreversible damage that will deprive future generations, waste streams, and moving towards circular economies, we can starting with our own children, of the habitable, fertile, and bio- avoid the most catastrophic consequences of our current behav- diverse planet their predecessors have enjoyed. iour (Otto et al., 2020). This requires large-scale social and Collectively, we have known about environmental degrada- political change, which in turn relies on the individual and col- tion and global heating for decades but have so far failed to take lective action of many individuals. Each of us must look beyond meaningful action. The psychology behind environmental inac- our carbon footprint: by focusing only on personal emissions, tion is complex and includes psychological self-preservation tac- we risk spending our energy on individual actions that don’t tics such as denial (‘it isn’t happening’ or ‘it’s happening but isn’t instantiate broader change. Instead, we can consider our ‘cli- so bad’ or ‘we can fix it easily’), hopelessness (‘the problem is mate shadow’, the full impact we have in our interactions with too big’, ‘other people/countries won’t play their part’), or fatal- others. Talking about our worries and leading by example in our ism (‘it’s too late’, ‘humans deserve to go extinct’). Scientists changes are crucial to change social norms and ultimately influ- have been notably inert on the subject. For one thing, we have ence policy. failed to recognise that our scientific activities are contributing to Here, we discuss how neuroscientists can act (Figure 1; see also the crisis. Also, being human, we have the same instincts to Aron et al., 2020 and Zak et al, 2020). We start by detailing local denial and psychological self-preservation as everyone else. action in our laboratories (from biology to cognitive neuroscience) Many scientists harbour a belief that technology will get us out of and day-to-day research activities, and then zoom out to our duties our predicament: this is because we are trained to think techno- as members of academic institutions and professional communi- logically, and to focus on the many successes of science, includ- ties. We finally discuss scientists’ role in public debate, education, ing those that are helping end the current Covid-19 pandemic. and advocacy. Throughout, we emphasise how all these levels of What we tend not to appreciate is the many things science has action co-exist and strengthen each other (Figure 2). failed to solve: cancer, dementia, infectious disease, addiction, and the nuclear fusion technology we have been promised for so many decades now, to name just a few. Some problems are just Environmental footprints of too large or complex to solve technologically, and 40 billion neuroscience research tonnes of atmospheric carbon per annum (and rising exponen- Neuroscience research has a large environmental footprint, rang- tially) is unfortunately one of them. ing from consumption of experimental resources such as plastics The Covid-19 pandemic has only emphasised the fragility of and chemicals in the lab, to the energy associated with infrastruc- scientific pursuits. Time-delayed systems (such as climate change ture (buildings and their maintenance), animal housing, equip- or pandemic spread) elicit paradoxical human behaviour: we fail ment manufacture and use, and data storage and analysis. The to act early due to the large perceived immediate cost, which energy we use and its associated carbon emissions are helping exacerbates problems and ultimately leads to far higher human and economic costs (Balmford et al., 2020). While many of us drive the climate crisis, and extraction and disposal of the materi- may prefer to stay out of politics and focus on our own research, als that make up our scientific consumables and equipment play academics are increasingly waking up to the reality that our own a part in ecosystem damage and biodiversity loss. These environ- work is not isolated from large societal developments (Rillig mental costs occur at all stages of the research pipeline. As a et al., 2021). We do not exist in a bubble, and neuroscience community, we need to be much more aware of the ways in depends on a stable climate to thrive. Extreme weather events which our scientific enterprises harm the planet, and take steps to have already caused numerous disruptions to scientific research: reduce this harm (see Box 2). Rae et al. 3 join a lab quantify accreditation push for teach impacts scheme divestment lobby join recycle sustainability institutional compute liquid helium committee leaders In your In your carefully research institution talk about it slow science inform general open vote public science contact political live review representatives In your In your community sustainably resource use y less academic life and society What can (neuro)scientists do to help avert grant climate and ecological breakdown? funding Figure 1. Ways in which (neuro)scientists can act on the climate and ecological emergencies. We distinguish four areas of influence and a non- exhaustive list of specific actions, each of which is discussed in greater detail in the article. In your In your community In your In your academic life and society research institution All these levels influence each other Figure 2. Climate action across spheres of influence. Our day-to-day actions induce social change, creating a mandate for leaders and power-holders to act at higher levels. Societal-level changes and government legislation are ultimately necessary to meaningfully change people’s behaviour at the global scale required. lack of Scope 3 emissions data associated with them, which Laboratories: energy consumption, includes monitoring of indirect emissions such as in supply equipment, and standardised mitigation chains (Box 3). A similar issue arises with consumables such as Wet labs are key facilities for many branches of neuroscience: plastics. Although we still do not know the exact environmental however, the full environmental impacts of neuroscience labora- costs of neuroscience laboratories, we do know that they result in tories have yet to be fully quantified. This is largely due to the significant carbon emissions: this becomes evident when looking 4 Brain and Neuroscience Advances Box 2. Steps to tackle environmental costs of neuroscience research. • Quantify. Identify and evaluate the climate and ecological costs of your research. Push suppliers and manufacturers to evaluate and share the environmental impacts of their products via life-cycle assessments. The first step to action is often to understand the scale of impacts. • Laboratory Practices. Integrate sustainable lab practices into your research. This includes but is not limited to increasing reuse of consuma- bles, managing equipment in a more sustainable manner, and managing samples and chemical stockpiles. Ensure laboratory practices integrate quality control, to improve conditions for reproducible research. Consider doing this via an accreditation scheme such as LEAF. • Liquid helium for MRI and MEG scanners. Helium is a by-product of fossil fuel extraction. Install a helium recycling tank for MEG to capture boil-off and support development of new non-helium methods such as OPM-MEG. • Computing demands for data analysis and modelling. Run only analyses and models that you need to, optimise modelling to minimise energy costs, and avoid running jobs at peak times for energy demand. • Resource usage. Consider carefully how much data to acquire, analyse, store, and share. Reduce storage of unnecessary files, regularly clean up data, remove intermediary processing stages, and consider how much needs to be stored long term. • Data sharing. Where possible, use an open science repository that runs on renewable energy, such as the Open Science Framework. • Slow science. Focus on quality over quantity, in line with ‘slow science’ principles (Frith, 2020). • Engage peers. Raise awareness of impacts and contribute to community actions to establish best practices where this is currently unknown, such as through the Organization for Human Brain Mapping’s Sustainability and Environment Action Group. The ClimateActionNeuPsych Slack group provides a forum to discuss among colleagues and share best practices in, for example, teaching, conferences, laboratory practice, and institutional policy. MRI: magnetic resonance imaging, MEG: magnetoencephalography, OPM-MEG: Optically Pumped Magnetometer magnetoencephalography. Box 3. What are Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions? Greenhouse gas emissions are categorised into three groups or ‘Scopes’. • Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources, such as vehicles or institutional power plants. • Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from energy purchased from a utility provider. • Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in the supply chain. These range from business travel, waste disposal and purchas- ing (embodied carbon of materials) to financial investments. These are the most difficult to estimate and tend to make up the majority of an organisation’s emissions. at specific institutions. For example, at UCL, where two of us are sustainability of scientific operations. During purchase, users based, approximately 48% of the whole institution’s emissions should seek equipment with the lowest LCA possible and avoid derive from science facility operations. unnecessary replacement unless both the LCA and energy effi- Despite the lack of comprehensive quantification, there are ciency have been considered. Equipment should be maintained immediate actions neuroscientists can take to mitigate many and repaired where feasible, to improve longevity and reduce the known sources of carbon emissions. The largest source of energy need for new purchases. Sometimes equipment is no longer consumption within labs typically derives from ventilation required even though it is still functional: in such cases users (Dockx, 2015). While lab users cannot redesign their ventilation should donate or re-sell equipment. Institutions should also pro- systems, they can take mitigation steps: for example to close the vide easy access to repair services, as at UCL where repair clinics sashes of fume cupboards, which significantly reduces energy have been hosted across the campus. Here, repair teams were sent consumption (Haugen, 2020). Beyond ventilation, laboratory to various institutes, and lab users could request services on-site equipment is often energy-intensive. In a plug-load assessment at at no extra cost (unless further parts were required). Disposal of the University of Stanford, lab equipment represented 14% of all equipment should only be considered when repair, resale, or equipment surveyed, but was responsible for 50% of the energy options for donation have been exhausted. The responsible use of consumption (Hafer, 2017). Lab users can simply turn off equip- equipment highlights how meaningful action can only arise from ment more often, but further reductions will rely on improved coordinated efforts across levels: local (scientists’ purchasing equipment operation while balancing research needs. For exam- decisions), institutional (university policies and repair support), ple, users may consider changing ultra-low temperature storage and governmental (mandatory standards for equipment lifetimes conditions from −80°C to −70°C, which can save 28% in energy and energy efficiency) (Figure 2). consumption. In doing so, they should consider a variety of fac- Today’s laboratory neuroscience research techniques rely on tors, such as freezer door-opening frequency, sample location access to single-use consumables, many of which are plastic. within the units, and sample type. Because plastic is made from oil, these consumables require fossil Laboratory equipment has impacts beyond its energy con- fuels for manufacture. At the end of their short life, many such lab sumption, albeit, again, Scope 3 data on the embodied carbon items are incinerated, or placed in landfill (which can generate even associated with manufacturing is often lacking. However, life- greater emissions), because we have no other way of disposing of cycle assessments (LCAs) on comparable pieces of equipment, them (Rizan et al., 2021). While quantification efforts are underway, such as in refrigeration (Cascini et al., 2013), indicate the signifi- wet labs are just starting to assess how to reduce and recycle the cant impacts manufacturing can have on the environment. In this consumption of single-use plastics (Alves et al., 2020). Where pos- sible, reusable consumables should be prioritised over single-use respect, the purchasing, upkeep and maintenance, usage, and dis- disposable items, although considerations for contamination, safety, posal of equipment are important factors in the overall Rae et al. 5 and throughput must be balanced with environmental impacts. This exists almost entirely in reserves of natural gas, buried in the has resulted in institutions developing their own guidance for wet lab Earth. This means the only way we obtain helium for our scan- users: examples include UCL, Oxford, and Edinburgh. ners is as a by-product of fossil fuel extraction. If we are to Wet lab neuroscientists must consider a multitude of factors to decrease fossil fuel usage by 60% by 2030, and eliminate it by reduce the environmental impact of laboratory operations. 2050, how will we cool our scanners without the helium buried in Making a lab more ‘green’ can be a complicated endeavour, natural gas deposits? Many modern MRI scanners, such as the requiring researchers to independently research what is feasible Siemens Prisma, have zero helium boil-off technology that and review existing case studies. Having a list of predetermined reduces the frequency of topping up helium to once every steps can be a powerful mechanism for ensuring staff take action 10 years. For MEG scanners, which use helium at a faster rate in complex settings, as has been evidenced with safety checklists than MRI, labs can install a helium recycling tank to capture boil- in clinical surgery (Papadakis et al., 2019). For this reason, off (Takeda et al., 2011). This reduces operating costs and pro- Sustainable UCL has developed the LEAF programme. LEAF is tects laboratories against the wildly fluctuating market prices of a standardised list of actions that any staff or student can imple- mined helium. In the longer term, non-helium brain scanning ment within a laboratory setting, to mitigate the environmental techniques such as Optically-Pumped Magnetometer MEG (Boto impact of operations. Criteria include issues listed above (venti- et al., 2018) may eliminate our need for helium completely. lation, equipment, and plastic consumables), but also actions Scientific computing is another surprisingly resource-inten- around waste management, procurement, teaching, people, water, sive enterprise. Neuroscientists require ever-increasing com- and research quality. LEAF is the first programme to establish a pute resources to analyse ever-growing datasets (Glasser et al., connection between research quality and environmental sustain- 2016; Littlejohns et al., 2020; The International Brain ability, in recognition that high quality, reproducible, science is Laboratory et al., 2019), and this brings with it increased energy less wasteful. As a result, LEAF is supported by the UK demands and carbon costs. Data centres and IT equipment are Reproducibility Network. LEAF is currently in use within 53 environmentally costly to build and energy-hungry to run (in institutions since launching in February 2021. In recognition of part due to the requirement for constant air conditioning, even the financial savings and carbon emission reductions possible by when data are not being analysed). Indeed, in 2017, data centres implementing LEAF, the tool contains calculators which allow produced 2% of global carbon emissions, and their absolute users to quantify such impacts. Many other institutions have their carbon footprint continues to grow. In computational neurosci- own recognised programmes to improve the sustainability of ence and machine learning, computing demands can be very laboratory operations: examples include University of Colorado, substantial (Anthony et al., 2020). Computer scientists are Boulder, the University of Georgia, Emory, Harvard in the United increasingly aware of this issue (Rolnick et al., 2019), and tools States and the Universities of Bristol and Edinburgh in the United such as CodeCarbon (Goyal-Kamal et al., 2021) make it easy to Kingdom. Other initiatives and networks include the UK’s quantify the carbon footprint of a piece of software. Novel, LEAN, the Max Planck Sustainability Network in Germany, energy-efficient computing hardware (Marković et al., 2020) Green Your Lab, My Green Lab, I2SL and national networks like and software (Schwartz et al., 2020) are under active develop- Green Lab NL, Green Labs Austria, and Sustainable Labs ment in computer science and engineering. However, until Canada. With the breadth of tasks at hand for neuroscience these are widely implemented, we should consider carefully researchers, and the complexity of reducing environmental how much data to acquire, analyse, store, and share: the more impacts of laboratory operations, such initiatives will become an we do, the bigger our footprint. Storage via hard media (such as increasingly important resource in standardising good practice. tapes for human brain imaging) might reduce this energy In summary, we encourage neuroscientists using laboratories requirement, but may incur other environmental costs in the to close the fume hood, consider energy usage and maintenance manufacture and eventual disposal of the hard media. Ask if of equipment, switch to reusable items over single-use consuma- your data centre considers the time of day that analyses are run: bles where possible, and consider the entire life-cycle costs of even in countries with high renewable energy fractions, fossil equipment from production to disposal. More broadly, it is fuels often supplement renewable generation at peak times. important to adopt an institutional sustainable labs policy, enrol Practising good data management can lower a project’s energy on a certification programme such as LEAF, and share good prac- use, while improving scientific quality and reproducibility: for tice with fellow scientists around the world (Zak et al., 2020). example remove unnecessary intermediary files, use version control to avoid re-running analyses, and test code locally before deploying it on large datasets. Cognitive neuroscience: hardware and The environmental cost of computing also applies to data computing sharing, as open science repositories run on servers in data cen- tres. Ultimately, given the environmental costs of acquiring data, It is not just wet labs that are resource-hungry and polluting; cog- it may be that reusing open datasets is the more sustainable nitive neuroscience also has a significant environmental impact. approach, and indeed open science practices often save time and Cognitive neuroscience techniques such as magnetic resonance resources in general. Some repositories, like the Open Science imaging (MRI), magnetoencephalography (MEG), electroen- cephalography (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET), and Framework (OSF) which uses Google Cloud, are run using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) require specialist equip- 100% renewable energy. FigShare, as well as other popular ment , and that has an environmental footprint, both in manufac- repositories for human brain imaging research, such as ture and usage. MRI and MEG scanners also require liquid OpenNeuro (for sharing raw data) and NeuroVault (for sharing helium to cool the superconducting elements. Helium is a natu- statistical results), use Amazon Web Services (AWS), which in rally occurring substance in the geological environment, which 2020 used only 50% renewables. While AWS is ‘committed to 6 Brain and Neuroscience Advances Box 4. Assessing the carbon footprint of neuroscience. It remains uncertain what truly sustainable research pipelines look like: We need to more clearly identify the footprint of our research. LEAF provides guidance and accreditation for sustainable practices in wet labs, including calculators to estimate the emission reductions achieved, and the Organization for Human Brain Mapping’s (OHBM) Sustainability and Environment Action Group is working on developing a ‘carbon calcula- tor’ (Mariette et al., 2021) and best practice recommendations on open, sustainable pipelines for human neuroimaging research. By developing such tools as a community, we hope it will become much easier to identify those behaviours that most affect our research footprint (how many emissions are saved by skipping an overseas conference, versus moving data to a server that is powered by renewables?) complementing similar calculations for personal carbon footprints (Wynes and Nicholas, 2017). However, community efforts to develop best practice recommendations will only succeed if neuroscientists actively contribute to groups and task forces (join the OHBM team here). achieving 100% renewable energy usage by 2025’, data cur- much smaller carbon footprint. If you must fly, choose economy rently shared on these repositories are burning fossil fuels. This class, avoid layovers, and combine multiple trips to maximise tension between the social value and environmental cost of shar- your flight’s scientific gain (Ciers et al., 2019). Crucially, discuss ing can be minimised by sharing only files that are truly needed these considerations with your colleagues and students to create (Samuel and Lucivero, 2020). This is particularly pertinent for a culture of sustainability, for instance by encouraging carbon- human brain imaging, in which there is often unnecessary dupli- conscious travel policies at your institution. Be very wary of car- cation of data (pre)processing by individual users. This is not bon offsets: they rarely neutralise all emissions, are difficult or only resource-inefficient, but can also cause problems with impossible to scale up, and can give the dangerous impression reproducibility of results (Botvinik-Nezer et al., 2020). Sharing that a small tax is sufficient to mitigate the impact of flying: it is appropriately documented preprocessed data and derivatives, as not (Aron et al., 2020). The best way to reduce emissions is to opposed to raw data, could help reduce the footprint of sharing, wean ourselves off flying habits, and to keep fossil fuels in the while retaining scientific value. ground. Moving forward, we hope that resource and energy use related Hosting virtual meetings eliminates nearly all of their carbon to data management and sharing will become a core considera- footprint. Although there is some energy cost in hosting and tion in project design and dissemination. It is also essential that streaming, these are tiny compared to the aviation footprint of a we understand more about the precise environmental costs of fully in-person meeting. For instance, switching from in-person acquiring new data versus reusing that which has been publicly to online format reduced CO emissions of a large geophysics shared, in order to make more informed judgement calls (Box 4). conference to around 0.1% (Klöwer et al., 2020). While this insight is far from new (Aron et al., 2020; Nathans and Sterling, 2016; Ponette-González and Byrnes, 2011), it plays out against a conference landscape now irrevocably changed by the Covid-19 Decarbonising academic communities pandemic. Over the last year, many existing conferences have and institutions gone virtual (e.g. SfN, FENS, OHBM, CCN), and new initiatives Beyond sustainability in our data collection and analyses, we such as WorldWideNeuro and NeuroMatch further illustrate the have a powerful role to play as professional scientists more power of virtual scientific exchange (Achakulvisut et al., 2020; broadly: both in our own behaviour and by changing the govern- van Viegen et al., 2021). Virtual meetings contribute to diversity ance of our institutions and communities. by strongly reducing or eliminating financial costs, visa and accessibility hurdles, and time away from home (Sarabipour et al., 2021), and many academics are eager to keep some meet- Flying less ings virtual post-Covid (Rissman and Jacobs, 2020). Many inno- vations in this space are widely useful: for instance, upvoting A major contribution to academics’ carbon footprint is the questions can replace a post-talk sprint to the microphone, ensur- habit of frequent, long-distance air travel to meetings and con- ing that the most insightful rather than the loudest voices are ferences, which contributes substantially to universities’ emis- heard. There is also the promise of immersive virtual sions (Ciers et al., 2019). A case study shows that around 70% reality where conference participants meet ‘in person’ via their of a single 4-year PhD’s carbon emissions come from air travel avatars and can interact one-on-one or in small groups for discus- (Achten et al., 2013), and skipping a single roundtrip trans- sion or even social events (see, for example, Engage VR). This Atlantic flight saves more carbon than eating a fully plant- technology is evolving fast, and the prospect in the not-too-dis- based diet for a year (Wynes and Nicholas, 2017). Taken tant future is of lifelike avatars that allow enjoyable as well as together, the total travel emissions for one meeting of the scientifically productive social interactions. Society for Neuroscience may amount to 22,000 metric tonnes CO (Nathans and Sterling, 2016), as much as the electricity Virtual meetings are not a panacea, and many scientists report use of almost 4,000 American homes. Unsurprisingly, a small frustration with all virtual meetings: people experience ‘Zoom group of (mostly senior) academics take the vast majority of fatigue’, disengage and multitask during long days behind the these flights (Arsenault et al., 2019), giving them the most screen, and struggle to balance meeting attendance with ongoing room and responsibility for improvement. demands at home or in the lab. Many of us crave a return to some To fly less, we can all attend fewer meetings in person, and in-person social interaction, scientific debate, and collaboration. meet in conferences and collaborate locally rather than overseas Academic societies will also need to explore alternative financial (Nathans and Sterling, 2016). We can choose transportation models that do not rely on the revenue from wholly in-person wisely: trains and carpooling can cover the same distance with a annual meetings. Moreover, virtual meetings may pose stronger Rae et al. 7 Traditional ‘legacy’ Traditional In-person Network of Virtual meeting meeting + virtual option meeting ‘hubs’ local meetups Figure 3. Possible formats for scientific meetings. As scientific meetings prepare for a post-Covid era, we call on conference organisers and attendees to work towards sustainable formats. challenges for early career researchers, who have not yet built clinics, and research institutions. If your institution has a sustain- strong interpersonal networks – although it is interesting that ability team or office, join them; if not, start one. Faculty govern- online-only conferences such as NeuroMatch have been spear- ance should demand accurate yearly carbon bookkeeping and headed by the early career community (Achakulvisut et al., concrete plans for emissions reduction across university activi- 2020), including the development of guidelines on running online ties: campus and laboratory operations, food and waste, compute meetings (Achakulvisut et al., 2021). resources and travel, as well as sustainable finance and banking, Crucially, we can have the best of both worlds: now is the divestments of endowments and pension schemes from fossil perfect time to rethink how we interact as a community, and inte- fuels, and energy production. Most of us as we advance in our grate virtual components into our post-Covid scientific meetings careers find ourselves starting to engage with the administrative (Figure 3). One obvious approach is the hybrid meeting with both machinery of the institution, and here we have the opportunity to an in-person and a virtual component, which increases accessibil- shift focus, influence decisions, and steer resources in a direction ity and reduces long-distance flights. Even more promising is a that seems important. Although such conversations may not meeting composed of ‘hubs’ in different locations, strategically effect immediate change, we can provide a background of con- placed to minimise travel distance (Klöwer et al., 2020), which stant pressure and concern, normalising action on environmental strongly reduces carbon emissions without the loss of a large issues. community gathering. Taking these ideas further, we can con- In other areas where we have influence, such as on funding sider a network of distributed local meetups: an individual scien- panels, we can also speak up about the need for climate-related tist or department provides a lecture hall to show streamed talks, research and to reduce the footprint of funded projects. UKRI books small rooms for one-on-one contact with meeting attend- (the UK national taxpayer-funded grant agency) has led in this ees elsewhere, and hosts social gatherings and meals. Such a by developing a comprehensive sustainability policy, including distributed model, recently trialled at the NeuroMatch 4.0 confer- a net-zero target of 2040, and requirements for grant applica- ence, allows any location with sufficient interest (and a bit of tions to demonstrate that environmental targets have been space) to tune in to large meetings. This combines strong local addressed. It is increasingly likely that journals and funding collaboration and face-to-face interaction with a worldwide vir- bodies will ask applicants to address the footprint of their pro- tual community – at a fraction of the emissions and cost. Local posed research, though more frameworks and tools are required meetups have the additional benefit of being resilient and adapt- to facilitate both the quantification and implementation of this. able in the face of changing Covid numbers: when in-person In the meantime, positively and proactively explaining how meetings are restricted in one country, this only affects the con- you have done so may give a competitive edge. If you sit on ference experience of a small number of scientists. funding panels, ask whether the sustainability aspects of appli- In sum, returning to legacy meetings has strong drawbacks: cations are incorporated into funding decisions – and if not, they cause unsustainable levels of carbon emissions from long- why not? These considerations may ultimately be integrated in haul flights, limit accessibility to those who can easily travel, and mandatory ‘resource use’ reviews, akin to ethical review cause jet lag for scientists from different time zones. By tackling boards for human and animal experiments, or explicitly inte- the technical and sociological challenges associated with virtual grated into ethical reviews. or distributed meetings (in collaboration with professional con- ference organisers and developers of virtual meeting tools), we can make our scientific community more low-carbon, inclusive, Changing minds: how scientists can diverse, and run at a fraction of the cost. influence society Up to now we have discussed the local actions we can take to Advocate for sustainability in your decarbonise our own scientific and academic lives, but as scientists institution we also have the ability to exert wider influence via our communi- Beyond our role in the global neuroscience community, we cation channels with educators, the general public, and policymak- can use our voice as students and staff members of universities, ers. Below, we offer some suggestions for how to do this. 8 Brain and Neuroscience Advances added credibility. Like climate scientists, we also understand Research the dynamics of exponential and cumulative processes, and Many neuroscientists study decision-making and social behav- have data literacy that can help clarify complex scientific iour. These fields are ideally placed to generate critical new information. One suggested way to start the process of giving insights into the neural and psychological processes underpin- talks is to contact your local environmental group with an ning pro-environmental behaviour and social change. Crucially, offer. While this may seem like preaching to the converted, if knowledge exchange with students, the public, and policymak- the talk is engaging it is likely to lead to further invitations to ers should be an ultimate goal to turn scientific insights into other fora. Local leisure clubs and church groups also often societal change. How can we encourage people to engage in welcome suggestions for speakers. behaviours such as reduce meat or flying, and increase walking What message should one give, in a public talk? As scientists and cycling (Steg and Vlek, 2009)? How do emotions shape we expect to provide factual information, but evidence refutes the way we update our beliefs and turn information into actions the simplistic ‘information deficit model’, by which climate inac- (Brick et al., 2021)? How can group dynamics facilitate rapid tion is entirely explained by an ignorance that we can correct social change (Hauser et al., 2014)? If your lab could answer with education (Bauer et al., 2007). The picture is far more such questions, consider leveraging your experimental skillset. nuanced (Zhao and Luo, 2021), as education interacts with peo- One can dip toes in the water without fully re-orienting a lab’s ple’s pre-existing attitudes and socio-political affiliations (Taube purpose: one of us recently collaborated with ecology col- et al., 2021). For example, those who are politically conservative leagues to explore the effect of campus biodiversity on student are more likely to be climate sceptics (McCright and Dunlap, mental health. Going further, some may even take their 2003), although this may vary by country (Hornsey et al., 2018). research in a new direction, as Adam Aron at UCSD has Audiences are unlikely to be completely swayed by facts alone, recently done. While it can feel frightening to step out of one’s but the facts are nevertheless important to convey, especially as comfort zone, university faculty are arguably in a unique, the general public are surprisingly ignorant of the science of cli- secure position that allows pivoting to research with a real- mate change (Ranney and Clark, 2016). world impact. The alternative is to influence people’s attitudes via their emotions. Here again, research suggests that the obvious, sim- plistic approach, in this case to evoke fear, anger, or shame, is Educators potentially counter-productive. Emotions are linked to motiva- tion and action in complex ways, which may also change over Many scientists, particularly those based in universities, are time, and with the audience (Chapman et al., 2017). For example, involved with education, and many also have connections with while fear might cause some to take positive action, it may cause schools as educators or parents. There is an appetite among others to adopt a denialist attitude (Stern, 2012) and the most young people for information about climate change, as evidenced effective messaging for a given individual may depend on their by the rapid spread of the school strikes movement started by the pre-existing stance (Hine et al., 2016). Thus, a talk to a general teen climate activist Greta Thunberg in 2018 (Boulianne et al., audience should ideally contain a mixture of factual, emotive, 2020). As universities are increasingly student-centred, commu- and practical information, while also stressing the urgency and nities of carbon-conscious students across departments can importance of collective action, finding a balance between too demand courses centred on the climate crisis. Schools much fear (leading to denial, despair, or paralysis) and too much frequently invite scientists to give talks and may be receptive to hope (leading to complacency). One approach used by the activ- offers to talk about climate change. At university level, courses ist group Extinction Rebellion has been to produce a two-part on climate change are springing up. Those neuroscientists in psy- talk, the ‘Heading for Extinction’ talk, in which the first half aims chology or cognitive science can contribute a psychological to shock and the second half to galvanise. Obviously the audi- dimension (https://www.teachgreenpsych.com/; https://www. ence demographic needs to be taken into account too, as a differ- apa.org/science/about/publications/climate-change). ent approach is needed with, say, teenagers than with hedge fund Ad hoc lectures are often welcomed by organisers of more managers. general seminar series. It may seem daunting to give talks about And finally, communicating with the public need not involve a subject one isn’t expert in. However, the climate science getting on a podium in an organised setting. Another important required to support a climate talk is rather grimly simple and is route is via social media, where a lively Facebook or Twitter readily accessed via the online summaries for policymakers com- thread may attract hundreds of readers. It is important to keep piled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) social media communications short, friendly, respectful, and fac- (the latest is available here). Also, general talks about technical tual, remembering that you are writing not for the overt climate matters are sometimes better given by non-specialists, as they deniers in the thread, who will not likely be swayed, but for the convey a clearer overview. silent majority who read and ponder. Communicating with the general public Communicating with politicians and Scientists can affect the world beyond institutions via their policymakers public communication efforts, and as practised communica- tors we are an important tool in the fight against climate Most of us recognise that the climate and ecological crisis is not change. But why should neuroscientists, as opposed to climate going to be solved by a population of well-meaning individuals, scientists, engage in public communication of climate change however large, in the absence of definitive top-down action from science? One argument is that we are perceived as not just world leaders. Leaders, in turn, recognise that they cannot take intelligent and informed but also impartial, which may give us action without the support of the populace. A two-pronged Rae et al. 9 Box 5. Recommended reading. • ‘The Garden Jungle’ by Dave Goulson, recommended by C.L.R. Authored by my Sussex colleague and bee expert Prof Dave Goulson, an enchanting journey through the insect life observed in his own back garden, and the damage we are wreaking on invertebrates, upon whom we depend for food and healthy ecosystems. • ‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, recommended by A.E.U. A captivating work of climate fiction (‘cli- fi’). It beautifully describes a detailed and well-researched set of potential solutions that may inspire concrete global change. • ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ by David Wallace Wells, recommended by K.J.J. This is hard-hitting and somewhat catastrophic but very galvanising. • ‘Saving Us’ by Katherine Hayhoe, recommended by A.E.U. A top climate communicator lays out effective strategies for bridging political divides and engaging in meaningful, hopeful climate conversations. • Take a walk in a setting with nature, recommended by M.F. This isn’t a book, but with the volume of climate crisis materials in the news, it’s good to take a break from the news and reading, and indulge in the natural settings we’re fighting to protect. approach is thus needed: one to influence individuals, as particular actions you yourself have taken. Interview candidates described above, and the other to influence politicians and other can be asked about their sustainability plans with respect to their societal movers and shakers. own research groups or departments. The more the issue is talked One route for scientists to influence politicians is to contact a about, and such discussion is normalised, the sooner we can local political representative, which in democracies is open to all move from ‘is it happening?’ to ‘what should we do?’. As the citizens. Elected representatives are sensitive to the opinions of renowned climate scientist and communicator Katherine Hayhoe their constituents, but as one UK member of parliament remarked has noted in her TED talk, ‘The most important thing you can do recently to one of us, ‘my inbox isn’t full of people complaining to fight climate change: talk about it’. about the climate crisis, they’re complaining about potholes’. Communications to politicians are therefore more likely to be Conclusion effective if they are numerous, and this is one practical action that can be suggested at a public talk. Interestingly, recent public poll- The climate crisis and ecological emergency have never been ing data in the United Kingdom suggests the tide is turning on more urgent. With each day that passes, the carbon in our atmos- how many voters see environmental issues as their top priority, phere goes relentlessly up, and biodiversity crashes relentlessly with record numbers ranking sustainability as more important down. Neuroscientists, just like everybody else, contribute to over the economy. However, voters need to let their elected rep- these problems, from the environmental costs of what we do in resentatives know how strongly they feel. the lab to how we attend conferences. But as professional scien- Scientists may also encounter politicians in other arenas in the tists, we are well placed to systematically and precisely measure course of their academic work, for example when they present to the footprint of our research activities and make evidence-based select committees. Although the subject at hand may be something decisions on what needs to change in our research practices. else entirely, the opportunity to engage directly with politicians can We call on all neuroscientists, not just those interested in sus- be exploited to express concern about the climate and ecological tainability, to make these changes a matter of the most urgent emergency and the slow pace of progress. Senior scientists in par- priority. If we do not lead from the front, how can we expect ticular can have great influence in the public sphere because of members of the public at large to support the far-reaching societal their reputations. For example, the renowned climate scientist shifts that are needed to address the climate crisis? We also call Chris Rapley recently resigned his position on the Science Museum on neuroscientists to become ambassadors for climate action, in Advisory Board, citing his disagreement with the museum’s ongo- their institutions, and in wider society. Many of us hold the reins ing policy of accepting sponsorship from oil and gas companies. of power on university committees, and funding panels. From Such acts can provide a highly visible statement that puts pressure campaigns to decarbonise your institution’s energy supply, to on wielders of power to change their practices. campaigns for meat-free campuses, there are many ways in which a combination of top-down commitment from senior aca- demics, and bottom-up demand from students and staff, can Communicating with colleagues and friends change your institution for the better. It is also critical that those Most of our interactions with other people take place outside of of us who have benefitted the most from the historical, carbon the formal frameworks described above. Here, we also have the intensive system are also those that carry the lion’s share of the opportunity to have an influence, this time via social affiliation burden of the transition to more sustainable practices. and the tendency of people to align their views with those of their Most important of all: talk about it. Discuss the sustainability in-group. implications of research practices within your lab, your depart- As scientists, most of our interactions are with colleagues and ment, in meetings, and at conferences. Tell your colleagues how students, who can be gently and repeatedly reminded of the real- worried you are. Speak to your political representatives. ity of climate breakdown, while recognising that haranguing Confronting the ‘inconvenient truth’ of the biggest challenge doesn’t change minds. One way to achieve this is not to cajole or humanity has ever faced is frightening. We have found that talk- persuade but simply to lead by example, making lifestyle changes ing about the climate crisis, with each other, with colleagues – in that are visible to others, and hoping these spread by ‘social con- fact, with pretty much anyone – helps us feel less isolated. tagion’. Another is to frequently express personal concern about Speaking out about the climate crisis can also create hope, in the climate emergency, for example in talks, and highlight finding others who also want to act (Box 5). 10 Brain and Neuroscience Advances Boto E, Holmes N, Leggett J, et al. (2018) Moving magnetoencepha- And there is still hope that we can avert the worst possible lography towards real-world applications with a wearable system. outcomes. But the window for action is very rapidly closing, and Nature 555(1): 657–661. so – neuroscientists – we must act on the climate crisis and eco- Botvinik-Nezer R, Holzmeister F, Camerer CF, et al. (2020) Variabil- logical emergency. 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Brain and Neuroscience Advances – SAGE
Published: Feb 28, 2022
Keywords: Climate crisis; ecology; global warming; sustainability; scientific practice; laboratory procedures; conferences; advocacy
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