The Ethical Dilemma of Conducting Research & the Inevitable Environmental Footprint


Last summer I had the opportunity to work with a team studying the correlation between climate change, migration, and health systems resilience and while doing so recognized several challenges regarding eco-conscious research practices. The issue at hand is that many researchers do not conceptualize their work through the lens of sustainability. It is a growing ethical concern that researchers studying climate change topics and conducting research in areas susceptible to climate catastrophe are contributing to the problem with their lack of accountability. A specific concern to the research project being conducted by the team I was assisting is one of their study sites, Bangladesh, is highlighted as the most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change across the globe. Conducting research in these areas raises a concern of increased exploitation of already unstable regions. As a more general concern, global social science research racks up most of their carbon emissions from air travel to sites as well as by workshops and conferences, not to mention waste produced from these meetings.

Guidelines Are Practically Non-Existent  

In an attempt to find concise best practices for conducting eco-conscious research I discovered that there was no clear evidence or recommendations for study-specific and ground level environmental interventions. Instead, I found broad recommendations such as a myriad of “reduce, reuse and recycle” slogans. Researchers seem to be operating under the general guidelines set by their organizations, if available, or the choice of was left up to the ethical and moral compass of the individual. Repeatedly, no real quotas were set by organizations; sustainable practices were merely goals and aspirations and there were no deadlines to implement these practices. Sustainability-specific research departments demonstrated a clear lack of sustainable practices. Research related mitigation interventions varied based on funding, but the most impactful and meaningful interventions were accessible to those with higher funding.

Reoccurring Themes

A few reoccurring themes appeared to me over the summer while conversing with professionals in the field. Many are not thinking about the topic of sustainability when conducting their own research (even those in the field of sustainability). Organizations have guidelines in place, but they lack accountability as the choice is left up to the individual. The wealthier have more options in many ways. For instance, some organizations refuse to reimburse travel for those who have flown but could have traveled by train but this is of no concern to those who can afford the expense themselves and prefer to save time. Furthermore, wealthier private organizations are able to afford cleaner energy sources and far more interventions.

Funding remains a substantial barrier for researchers. When working with a small grant it can be daunting to think about more costly but environmentally friendly alternatives. In my own travels I was shocked to see that a train ticket was considerably more expensive than the cost of a quicker flight option. Lastly, education is a key component in raising awareness and enacting change. The biggest difference can be made by involving and educating larger amounts of people. Many universities are beginning to require new students to take sustainability courses but that addresses the future and not the present.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Only few organisations are setting distinct goals and targets to reduce the environmental impact of their research. Notable actions that might be implemented to reduce environmental impacts include, but are not limited to – refusal to reimburse air travel, when avoidable ,promoting lifestyle alternatives( such as providing financial incentives for taking public transit, and providing hybrid alternatives), limiting electronic communication and eliminating days where transmittance is allowed. These accomplishments are predominately on the macro level.However, policy implementation is a slow and tedious process . Many will grow old waiting for guidance from higher powers and as such micro-level action is required. As an example of efforts on the micro level, the research team I was working with will be including a variation of the below actions.

Actions That Should Be Taken By Research Teams to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint:

  1. An environmental impact assessment should be conducted for every proposed policy, program, plan, or project.
  2. Reduce travel, only making trips when absolutely necessary and staying for longer periods of time. Offset carbon from unavoidable travel through donations to charities that aid climate change impacted local populations. Continuous calculations of the impact should be taken and then offsets budgeted for.
  3. Decolonize research so that local researchers can conduct research eliminating the need for air travel that would result in a larger environmental footprint.
  4. All group meetings, workshops, conferences, will be conducted in an eco-conscious fashion. Eliminating all single-use (disposable) options during the entirety of the research project.
  5. When communicating electronically, reduce transmittance when possible, communicating concisely.
  6. All data, including interviews and surveys, will be collected and exchanged electronically.
  7. Continued awareness will be raised by all research members of the project to their subsequent employers and teams. Education is a key component in raising awareness and enacting change.

Sustainability research should aim to advance evidence as well as encourage public debate. Furthermore, it should be able to provide real world examples of how to actually apply this knowledge to everyday life. We should be using scientific evidence to implement policies and change work processes, opting for adaptable guides for research teams. As we inch closer to the climate tipping point, it is our responsibility to do all we can to encourage political and economic action .

About the Author:

Brittany Cobb works as a Project Manager at the OHSU (Oregon Health and Science University) Knight Cancer Institute and is a recent MPH graduate from the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. She is also an intern for CEPED (IRD-Université de Paris).

Competing Interest:                                                               

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have nothing to declare.


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