Climate change

Please note that all opinions below are my own, and not necessarily those of my institution, funders, or colleagues.

I aim to minimise the carbon footprint of the lab's activities wherever possible.

The climate data show that we have very little time to radically reduce our carbon emissions to secure a sustainable future, by limiting global temperature increases to 1.5C (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2018 report).

I believe that as a scientist, I am morally responsible for acting in accordance with what our data show. Furthermore, I believe that all scientists, whether climate specialists or neuroscientists, need to take action on this critical issue. The reason is that climate change will affect our economy (and therefore research funding), societal stability, and energy security, all of which we rely on to conduct our research. These effects will happen in our scientific lifetimes, and those of our trainees.

There are some useful summaries elsewhere on the carbon footprint of scientific research (Nature editorial 2017, Nathans & Sterling, 2016, eLife), and what scientists can do to mitigate this (Aron et al, 2019, Neuron). Here I outline the specific issues for my lab, and how I am trying to tackle these.

I have also written a guide for academic societies that are looking to generate an Environment Policy, focusing in particular on how to reduce the climate impact of conferences and meetings.

This is an ongoing and evolving attempt to list and manage my lab's carbon footprint: please do get in touch with any suggestions.

Update 2021: As the founding Chair of the new Organization for Human Brain Mapping's Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group, I am currently working with colleagues internationally on several of the issues listed below (conferences, brain scanning, analysis pipelines). Follow us on Twitter @OhbmEnvironment and get in touch if you would like to join us. Our website is https://ohbm-environment.org/.

 

  • Talks and presentations

    Open Science Room at Organization for Human Brain Mapping, June 2020

    "The hidden cost of open neuroimaging: what's our footprint?" (Slides available here)

    In this talk at the OHBM 2020 Open Science Room, I examined the environmental impact of open science, with a particular focus on neuroimaging datasets. I explained why open neuroimaging has environmental consequences, assessed the green credentials of popular repositories, and proposed that we might need to more fundamentally reduce scientific consumption first and foremost, before mitigating the footprint of data acquisition and sharing.

    An outcome of this talk is that I am currently establishing an OHBM Environment Special Interest Group (email me if you are a member of OHBM and would like to join).

    Update 2021: The OHBM Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group is now founded. Follow us on Twitter @OhbmEnvironment and get in touch if you would like to join us.

    Sussex Sustainability Assembly, February 2020

    "The climate impact of academic flying...and what can we do about it?" (scroll to 1:27)

    In this talk at the first Sussex Sustainability Assembly, I gave an overview of why academic air travel is a problem, and what we could do about it locally at Sussex.

    An outcome of this presentation is that I am currently developing a Sustainable Staff Business Travel Policy with academic and professional services colleagues at Sussex.

  • Air travel

    The biggest carbon footprint of academic research probably comes from air travel – flying to conferences and meetings.

    Much has been written elsewhere about how big a problem flying is, why we need to reduce it, and why academic scientists are amongst the 'worst offenders' (Kimberly NicholasNathans & Sterling, 2016, eLifeNature editorial 2015). Parke Wilde and Joseph Nevins of "Flying Less: Reducing Academia's Footprint" have produced a very useful FAQ covering these points.

    I am restricting my air travel, because I feel strongly that the carbon footprint is too high. This means that I focus my conference attendance on meetings that I can travel to by train (in the UK and Europe). I have not flown in 6 years, and in that time have attended an average of 1.25 conferences and meetings a year. It is possible to remain active in conference participation without flying.

    I am a signatory of the #flyingless petition, and FlightFreeUK's #FlightFree2021 pledge to not fly in 2021.

    I subscribe to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research's 'Code of Conduct', and use their 'Decision Tree' to guide my travel decisions.

    I believe #flyingless is the one action that can have the biggest impact on the carbon footprints of academic scientists.

    Some conferences are now live-streaming sessions, and making video recordings publically available. In 2019, the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping  provided some OHBM meeting content 'OnDemand'.

    Interestingly, recent data show that there is no relationship between air travel and metrics of academic productivity, such as publications or h-index (Wynes et al, 2019).

    I have written this guide for academic societies that are looking to generate an Environment Policy, focusing in particular on how to reduce the climate impact of conferences and meetings. 

    Update 2021: In the Organization for Human Brain Mapping's Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group, we are working on proposals for more sustainable conference models for the neuroimaging community. 

    Follow us on Twitter @OhbmEnvironment and get in touch if you would like to join us.

  • MRI brain scanning

    MRI brain scanning has a carbon footprint. This comes from the manufacture, transport, and installation of the scanner; its day-to-day operation - which requires electricity; and the liquid helium that cools the super-conducting elements. This calculation puts the carbon footprint of one scan at 160kg.

    The 2 MRI scanners we have in the Clinical Imaging Sciences Centre are Siemens models. Siemens has a large decarbonisation program, and aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. For example, the energy involved in the manufacture of scanners comes from renewable sources.

    The day-to-day operation of the scanner requires electricity. The University of Sussex is currently undergoing a major revamp to replace the current systems that generate energy on campus with more sustainable alternatives.

    MRI scanners require liquid helium to cool the super-conducting elements. Liquid helium is a naturally-occuring substance in the geological environment. Unfortunately, it exists almost entirely in reserves of natural gas. This means it is extracted as part of fossil fuel mining for natural gas - but we need to 'keep it in the ground'.

    I am yet to find an answer to the climate impact of liquid helium, so I am applying the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' mantra.

    Reduce: Only acquire (good quality) data that you intend to use.

    Reuse: Consider if you can use data that already exist, for example from the Human Connectome Project.

    Recycle: Share your summary data on Neurovault so others can use it for meta-analyses.

    Update 2021: In the Organization for Human Brain Mapping's Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group, we are working on ascertaining the environmental impacts of brain scanning research. 

    Follow us on Twitter @OhbmEnvironment and get in touch if you would like to join us.

  • MRI data analysis

    Analysing our MRI brain scan data requires servers with large storage capacity. There is a carbon footprint from the manufacture of such servers, and then the energy required to run them.

    We use the Sussex High Performance Cluster to store and analyse our MRI data. Sussex is currently making major changes to its high performance computing resourcing, and I was invited to advise on the environmental implications as a 'Sustainability Champion'. Watch this space.

    Reducing the amount of storage space you use will reduce both the energy requirements to store your data, and require less overall server storage - thus reducing the manufacture footprint. Large datafiles for MRI scans are inevitable, but we can reduce the total amount of storage used by deleting intermediary files that result from our image processing steps. For example, a typical fMRI analysis pipeline in SPM involves preprocessing stages such as realignment and normalisation. You can delete the outputs of these stages and keep only the final, fully preprocessed fMRI data. Processing multimodal Human Connectome Project style acquisitions also creates a lot of intermediary files, not all of which may be necessary to keep.

    One can also reduce the number of files created by running only analyses one really needs to, in order to answer hypotheses. This is also just good scientific practise. 

    Update 2021: In the Organization for Human Brain Mapping's Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group, we are working on ascertaining the environmental impacts of brain scanning research. 

    Follow us on Twitter @OhbmEnvironment and get in touch if you would like to join us.

  • Open science repositories

    Uploading our data and code to public repositories has a carbon footprint, because this requires servers to store the information. Energy is required to manufacture the servers, and then to run them.

    I use the Open Science Framework (OSF) to share my data and code. OSF uses Google Cloud storage, which is run using renewable energy (at least, purchasing the equivalent of the energy usage from renewable sources).

    I share summary fMRI results on NeuroVault. NeuroVault uses Amazon Web Services, only 50% of which is run using renewable energy. After I enquired, NeuroVault are aiming to switch their AWS server location to one that is guaranteed to run on renewables.

    Also, see my Open Science Room talk at OHBM 2020 for a longer discussion on the environmental impacts of open neuroimaging.

    Update 2021: In the Organization for Human Brain Mapping's Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group, we are working on ascertaining the environmental impacts of open neuroimaging practises.

    Follow us on Twitter @OhbmEnvironment and get in touch if you would like to join us.

  • Purchase of scientific equipment

    The manufacture and transport of goods has an associated carbon footprint. This includes scientific equipment. I use various bits of kit to run my experiments, such as pulse oximeters to measure participant's heartbeats, and actiwatches to measure sleep and activity patterns. 

    I am minimising the carbon impact of my lab's physical hardware by purchasing items only when it is really necessary for a defined experiment, and only purchasing the amount I need. This is also ethical usage of our limited research funds.

  • Web searching

    Each time we search the web there is an associated carbon footprint, because running servers takes electricity. Some search engines now run their operations using renewable energy (e.g. Google have since 2017).

    You can go one better and use a search engine that not only runs on renewable energy, but does something useful with its profits. I use Ecosia, which plants trees. This is the default search engine across the University of Sussex campus, but it is easy to install as your defaut search bar off-campus.

  • Personal carbon footprint

    If you are interested in calculating a personal carbon footprint, this WWF tool may be useful.

  • School of Psychology Faculty Green Officer

    Since I started at Sussex as a lecturer in 2019, my department 'admin role' has been Faculty Green Officer. This means I have some of my time allocated to supporting sustainability activities in the School of Psychology. This includes reviewing our curriculum to see if we can foster more teaching related to sustainability, looking at what we can do to support research in the area of environmental psychology, and changes to our buildings and grounds such as increasing biodiversity and wildlife friendly areas.

    If you are a member of the School of Psychology and would like to get involved, send me an email.

    If you are at another School within Sussex, or at another university, ask your head of department who your sustainability officer is, and if you don't have one, why not? (Perhaps it could be you...)

  • OHBM Sustainability & Environment Action Special Interest Group

    In 2020, myself and colleagues founded the Sustainability & Environment Action Special Interest Group within the Organization for Human Brain Mapping. Together, we are looking at more sustainable conference models for the Organization, and ascertaining the environmental impacts of human brain imaging research, in order to produce best practise guidance for our academic community. We are also working to educate human neuroimagers on the climate crisis and ecological emergency, and the crucial role we have to play in addressing this as professional scientists.

    If you are a member of an academic society, find out whether they have a group dedicated to sustainability, and if not, why not? (Perhaps you could set one up...)

    Follow us on Twitter @OhbmEnvironment and get in touch if you would like to join us (you don't have to be a member of OHBM). Our website is https://ohbm-environment.org/.