Friedemann Reinhard, co-coordinator of the Quantum Metrology and Sensing research unit within MCQST, shares his thoughts on how COVID-19 has impacted scientific life and the subsequent environmental consequences.
Did Greta Thunberg create the Corona virus?
Of course, she didn’t. But wouldn’t it make a beautiful conspiracy theory? Fridays for Future built a secret bio-weapon that would ground all airplanes and send western economies into turmoil and chaos, cutting production, consumption and CO2 emission alike. To me, this sounds so compelling that I will now head for my kitchen and make a tin foil hat.
Why? Because our current life is quite reminiscent of the much-feared dystopia of an eco-dictatorship. Air travel is strictly forbidden and mobility in general is greatly reduced. We are living with less money and more time. Business travel has been replaced by online meetings and we can no longer engage in decadent leisure activities. These measures are so impactful that monthly CO2 emission dropped by 25% in China and Germany will, miraculously, reach its emission targets for 2020. Interestingly, CO2 tends to plummet even faster than the economy (-7% CO2 vs -4% GDP in the crisis of 2009), which suggests that the luxury items we sacrifice first are disproportionally wasteful.
For scientists, the implications of this change can be felt every day. Without Corona, I would be spending this Sunday on various airports, traveling to a conference in Israel. Now I am sitting on my couch writing for this blog.
Scientists travel. We travel excessively. Last year, I have been hitting the road every fourth week, taking 24 flights, emitting 13 tons of CO2, the largest item on my carbon footprint budget and 4 times more than what would be sustainable. In 2020, these days are gone.
Why do we travel that much? The answer is complex. Partly, it relates to the very essence of science. By definition, uncovering the laws of nature not only deals with nature, but it deals just as much with laws, that is: human language. Science is not only about experiments, it is also about expressing their results in language, pictures, videos, and sounds. You have only understood a problem once you can explain it to someone else. Therefore, giving and attending talks, reading and writing articles, criticizing and defending hypotheses are vital ingredients of our work. Heisenberg nicely summarized this: “science is based on experiments. It produces results by the discussions of its actors, as they deliberate on the interpretation of the experiments.” This is the essential and heroic aspect of travel.
There is a second one, which is less glorious. When we apply for funding, we have to team up with others to form a consortium. Therefore, building and nurturing a network is a must in order to survive in the academic world.
I tend to believe that we had a third reason in the pre-Corona age: we traveled because we could. Science is expensive. Incredibly expensive. Even a small lab like mine is burning 3000€ of third party funding per day. In this situation, spending 1000€ on a flight ticket is a no-brainer. If there is the slightest benefit, we will do it and we will not even notice the cost.
Now we are suddenly finding ourselves deprived of our favorite drug. One might expect us to get unproductive and depressed. Strangely, we do not. I will not forget the moment in early March, when I met a colleague in the subway. “Have you heard, the spring meeting has been canceled?” he remarked. “This is extreme. But, you know, secretly you are happy for one more week in the lab”. I smiled - and confessed that I had made similar considerations myself.
The weeks that followed have been one of the most pleasant periods of my scientific life. I finally have time for focused work, undisturbed writing of papers and proposals, and careful planning of experiments. I am no longer surprised that Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity in a similar situation – locked at home during a plague outbreak. Still, I do not feel disconnected from the world. Regular online meetings with my team are part of my day, and we keep figuring out the most useful tools for our collaboration. Asking for a Skype call, rather than waiting for the next conference, is finally becoming an accepted way to stay in touch with colleagues. Let me cite a Chinese friend on this: “We are slowly getting back to normal life here, but I do not have much time. Since beginning of March, all the European colleagues want to skype.”
Some economists argue that all this will not prevail, citing the example of the financial crisis in 2009, where CO2 emission quickly picked up pace when the economy recovered. I am not convinced. This crisis is more profound. It is forcing us to not merely reduce our budget, but to completely rethink the way we work. When we will be getting back to normal life, many things will have changed. Hopefully, more colleagues will have bought iPads, so that online whiteboards can become a standard tool of communication. We will all master the online tools for meetings, teaching and presentations, and companies will have been forced to make them more usable. We will have seen how much time they can save and we might well stick with them, at least for technical reviews. Some of us will have started blogging and uploading their talks on YouTube, and we will all finally have started to actually read the papers of our colleagues. The mere act of gathering knowledge can then be outsourced to these channels, so that we can focus on discussion and networking on our conferences, which today are as interactive as Sunday service in the Catholic Church. While we will never be able to live without travel, these tools could enable us to reduce it to, say one intercontinental flight per year.
My greatest hope is that we will be dealing with the economic fallout of COVID-19 by reducing working hours and salaries for everyone rather than cutting jobs for some. Then, this crisis could end up doing more good than harm. Someday, looking back at this time, we might well be saying that 2020 was the moment when the modern world was born.
Final remark: Greta, I do not intend to ridicule your situation. I was shocked when I heard about your infection with COVID-19, and I wish you all the best for a full and speedy recovery!