Environmentally sustainable research is the only way forward

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Scientific research, and fundamental research in particular, is driven by a passion for learning. In the case of bioscience research, it is a passion for understanding the world around us and the living organisms populating that world, and striving for ways to make our lives healthier. It is therefore extremely contradictory to conduct our research in a way that damages our environment. Unfortunately, many labs are unaware of, or choose to ignore, their environmental impact, which is mainly – but not only – derived from their plastic and chemical waste, energy consumption and direct and indirect CO2 emissions. As a result of current laboratory practices, the environmental impact of a research scientist in this area is well above that of the average individual, which stresses the importance of our responsibility in tackling the environmental crisis.

Fortunately, in recent years, an increasing number of research centres are showing an interest in making biomedical research more sustainable, with two main fronts emerging to challenge the current system. First, scientists themselves are creating sustainable “green initiatives” to apply their unique expertise and knowledge to address this complex topic. Second, more positions, such as Sustainability Manager, are now being created at many research centres. However, the time is short, and the road is long, so further and faster effort is required in the coming years to help tackle our part in the environmental crisis.

There are several areas of impact that require significant adjustment and regulation. Among these there are two of particular importance: waste and carbon footprint. This piece provides a general overview of these problems. I will present specific tips and advice on how to address them in a follow-up post on this site. 

Laboratory waste and the challenge of a circular economy  

Laboratory waste is particularly problematic for several reasons. Chemical and biological waste needs to be treated following specific regulations depending on its nature. Unfortunately, this also applies to any plastic that has been in contact with chemical or biological waste, meaning most plastics used in research labs cannot be recycled and end up in landfill or burned. Scientific research was estimated in 2015 to be responsible for 1.8% of total global plastic waste.

As in other industries, recycling should only be used as a last resort to achieve a circular economy model, with the other two ‘R’s – Reduce and Reuse – being prioritised. However, with biomedical research often lacking recycling options, the need to prioritise Reduce and Reuse over recycling is even greater. Another problem in lab waste management is the fact that, even though in many cases plastic has not been in contact with dangerous material, it is treated as such. In some cases, recycling plants simply refuse to accept waste originating in research laboratories, and in other cases, research centres do not yet have in place waste streams to allow for separation of these different waste types.

Many questions need to be addressed with regard to lab waste production and processing, but it all has to start with a behavioural change from the scientist and needs to reach policy regulation at the institutional level. At both levels, procurement is a cornerstone. Research centres need to work to add sustainability to the equation of product value. High quality and low price are no longer enough for a product to be considered for purchase: it needs to be sustainable too. Users need to put pressure on suppliers to turn their pipelines into more sustainable ones, and scientists are the only ones with the power to do so, because if we stop buying, they will stop producing.

Energy, travel and the current opportunity of a new model 

Several studies have been published that assess the carbon footprint of research from the point of view of a research project, a lab or a conference. Regardless of the angle of the study, they all agree in their conclusion: we need to re-evaluate the current model.

There are two main aspects to consider when looking at the carbon footprint of research: infrastructure and travel. Under infrastructure we consider daily lab operations, including the need to cool laboratories below normal office temperatures (as required for much lab equipment), sample storage, and procurement as well as the transport associated with it, which is substantial but often forgotten. A great source of environmental concern is the cold storage of samples. An average ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezer is estimated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to produce in a year the CO2 equivalent of about one home – and most individual laboratories have more than one of these. Several things can be done to increase the efficiency of lab operations, including ULT storage and management of non-essential equipment, and many initiatives are now in place to help with the implementation of new policies. However, and as a recurrent theme, behavioural change and cooperation from the scientist are key to achieve these changes. 

The second source of concern is travel. Although “travel to work” is no worse than in other jobs, “travel for work” is overwhelming, with conferences being one of the main sources of CO2 emissions associated with academic research. Different studies estimate the carbon footprint of a conference to be between 0.5 and 0.8 tonnes per participant, which may not seem much but is equivalent to 5–10% of annual per capita emissions of Europe. This should prompt us to ask whether all these on-site conferences are really necessary. As a hint, a recent study evaluating the connection between scientific success and air travel found little influence of air travel on academic productivity. Interestingly, air travel seems to increase with seniority: lab heads and professors are responsible for 5–10 times more emissions than postdocs and PhD students. Unsurprisingly, the possibility of off-setting research-related emissions, particularly due to travel, is entering the discussion. However, it is important to keep in mind that this should only be considered for non-avoidable emissions, and that all efforts should first be put into reducing our footprint. To put it into perspective, to offset the emissions of an average size conference, 5000 tree seedlings would need to grow for 10 years and we cannot wait that long

With the climate crisis upon us, business as usual is not an option, and right now we are living through a unique opportunity for change. The Covid-19 pandemic is having devastating effects around the world, but it is in our hands to make an opportunity out of this terrible situation. This crisis has helped us see that the technology is available to turn most conferences into virtual hubs for communication, reducing the need for travel down to the essentials. If we continue with this model after this crisis, we should be able to reach a nearly carbon neutral conference model. Here, once again, the understanding and collaboration of the scientific community is key.

The method and the model

As previously mentioned, procurement, lab operations and travel are cornerstones in this fight. However, all the changes necessary require an enormous behavioural change of the scientific community. Nothing can be achieved without collaboration and input from the scientists.

Institutions need to understand that becoming more sustainable is not only a trend required to prevent reputational risk, it is an ethical and social responsibility. Moreover, sustainable operations can help save money that will eventually be invested in science, so it is also for our own benefit to put those resources to a better use. Finally, research sustainability needs to follow a bidirectional model. Most businesses follow a unidirectional model, where decisions are made by the directors and implemented to employees through the administration office. However, research is organized in a horizontal way where research labs are somewhat independent entities. For any policy implementation, but in particular for sustainability, a bidirectional model needs to be put in place for two main reasons: first, policy implementation will be efficient only with the agreement and collaboration of scientists, and second, input from scientists is necessary to understand the kind of measures that need to be implemented. With this aim, research centres should base their sustainability strategy in a team comprising sustainability management specialists and research science experts. The latter should not only rely on the volunteer work from researchers, but on a specific position held by someone with scientific research experience.

 We cannot look away any longer. Scientists have an ethical responsibility to lead by example and to make sustainable research the new business as usual.


Top image of post: by anncapictures from Pixabay 

Marta Rodríguez-Martínez

Research Scientist, EMBL

Research scientist in genome and cancer biology and expert in science sustainability

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Isabel Varela Nieto
Isabel Varela Nieto 10 days ago

Inspiring post!