The grad student and the cost of traveling

I was having a chat with a coworker the other day about mileage plans and credit cards. After some back and forth I decided that my Alaska Airlines card was worth the annual fee because I can travel back home to Anchorage once a year at much less than it would cost out-of-pocket and without having to charge as much as with other credit card reward programs. While Seattle to Anchorage is the shortest drive from the lower 48, I will not be driving the ALCAN over winter break – it’s just not an adventure I care to take. Whatever the current out-of-pocket price for airfare, I feel as if we are likely to be cheating the economics, severely. It’s easy to agree with the news about the terrible price hikes that are accompanied by diminishing in-flight freebies and more invasive security measures (“Don’t touch my junk”). However, tickets must be under-priced if your economic model were to include a carbon pricing scheme (i.e., the cost of negative societal impacts due to exhaust/pollution from combustion of fossil fuels is a distributed absolute cost). Regardless of the force from the visible hand of politics, there is no reason to think that prices will remain at or below their current levels into the future.

“I probably pay in the ballpark of 10% of my stipend for personal travel back home to the East coast,” my coworker mentions, “and if the cost of air travel were two or three times what they are now, it would have prohibited me from studying here.” I thought that was an interesting point. The U.S. certainly stretches across a vast land and top research universities are competing for the best and brightest across the country. If air travel were to cost 2-3 times what it does, it seems plausible that more universities would have a larger student population from in their home state, or in regions nearby where shorter-distance transportation is more cost-effective.

“But if they [congress?] ever build those high-speed rails, maybe it wouldn’t matter,” he added. According to David Mackay’s rough calculations (Sustainable Energy – without the hot air), a high-speed diesel train would take you about 4.5 times as long to get your there (vs. about 10 for an automobile) at about 4.5 times less energy consumed per person over the distance traveled (about 2x for the automobile), assuming full capacity during transport. If a time-to-cost ratio could make the high speed train economically comparable to the Boeing 747, then the 4.5 reduction in energy cost would certainly play a role in my coworkers decision to attend the University of Washington, in the scenario for which the cost of air travel included the cost of carbon consumption and emission. So what does this mean? Well, it’s rather complex to hash out in one sitting.

There is just too much at play for any simple discussion on carbon pricing: energy policy, education, geopolitics, and economics…

The reason I bring up this anecdotal story is because it occurred days before the results of this poll were published in Science magazine online. In this reader’s poll, a question was posed:

Would you participate in an annual meeting remotely (via video teleconferencing or other technology)?

The poll was referenced by a letter which suggested that grant proposals may consider asking for funding of advanced teleconferencing equipment rather than large travel allowances to annual meetings, in order to reduce negative consequences of air travel such as greenhouse gas emissions. Of the Science readers who responded, and from the four responses that were allowed, about half would attend annual conferences remotely (below, dark blue) because of the net benefit to the environment, even if it wasn’t quite the same. Most of the other half wouldn’t attend remotely (dark + light orange), either because it the benefit to the environment did not exceed the benefits of attending in person (light orange), or that it would be almost worthless (dark orange).

Maybe the 20% or so who thought it would be worthless are biased by poor experiences with videoconferencing systems – I know I find them to be significantly behind the bar, in terms of what is technologically feasible. But there is also the positive aspect of sharing downtime, meals, or drinks with your peers in the field while attending an annual conference. It’s during these times of the conference which I find that I make many useful connections as well as obtain very practical and useful experimental details that don’t make it into publications (such as tips on making organic solar cells that actually work). Many long-distance collaborations, such as those in federally funded research centers, practically require annual meetings in order to maximize yield of the results predicted in their grant proposals. I think this is interesting because it ties into the conversation I had with my coworker the other day. If ticket prices reflected the energy and environmental costs, the demand for better, less-expensive remote conferencing solutions could significantly reduce that 20% or so who would absolutely not attend a conference remotely.

With almost half of the Science readers in support of this option, would they actually do what they say? I would have to think that there would need to be a pool of resources from the respective scientific societies set aside to organize such an endeavor; if my department does not have the available hi-quality conferencing solution, where would I go to connect remotely? Perhaps the AAAS is testing the waters, but I don’t think that airline prices currently cost enough for this to be a reality.


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