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My group leader was supposed to give an invited presentation (all expenses paid) at a conference halfway around the world. Due to personal reasons he can't go (more or less last minute, the event is in a month) and has asked me to give the presentation for him, the conference organizers are happy with this switch.

The issue is, this would be the longest flight I ever took in my life. I don't like flying and I personally try avoid flying whenever possible due to the impact of flying on climate change. I am torn, as this is quite the opportunity (I am still a PhD student) and that my group leader chose me as the replacement instead of other more senior colleagues, on the other hand I think it is insane to fly halfway around the world for a presentation that takes 1 hour.

Is it ok to say no to such an offer and explain why I do not want to go, or will this be carreer suicide? What is the best and most diplomatic way to decline without causing too much damage? Or should I rather bite the bullet and just go?

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 2:18
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    I need to ask a clarification point: have you asked whether you can present the talk remotely? When I had to turn down a conference talk as a PhD student in the mid-00's on the other side of the world because I couldn't get there, there really was no other option. But the technology exists, now. If the conference organisers turns down your offer of presenting remotely, they are making that choice. Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 5:21

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Oh boy, is there a lot of cynicism in the comments ...

Is it ok to say no to such an offer and explain why I do not want to go, or will this be carreer suicide?

First off, saying no to one specific conference invitation is certainly not "career suicide". Opportunities come and go, and all of us sometimes (or rather: quite frequently) need to leave some opportunities on the wayside because of circumstances. So if you feel particularly bad about this specific conference then just say no and go on with your life. Sure, just maybe this would have been the transformative event for your young career, but much more likely it would have been like most conferences - mildly interesting, but not something very different to the dozens of other conferences you have or will attend.

That said, saying no to all international conference invitations will be a severe hinderance (unless academia radically changes in the next years). I understand your concerns, and they are definitely valid, but right now academia is a reputation game, and not attending conferences would be a disadvantage you likely can't afford. We all like to believe that our journal papers will speak for themselves, but my slightly cynic observation is that they do not, if the competition also has good journal papers and travels around the world to advertise them.

So the question I would ask myself is: is this conference much worse than other conferences in terms of climate impact? For example, if you live in the US and the conference is in Australia this may be the case - there will be plenty of high-profile conferences that you could attend instead, some of which you can take the train to. However, if you live in Australia, almost any (international) conference will be "halfway around the world", and, quite frankly, you will need to come to terms with the idea of going to such meetings once or twice a year.

One way not to reduce the climate impact, but to make it more "worth it", is to combine your long international travel with other activities. For example, if you already go around the world you can take the opportunity to travel, have a nice vacation, or visit other universities. When I was a PhD student, I travelled to a lot for conferences, but I never went on a plane just to take a vacation (and even now, 10+ years later, my desire to take a long flight just to see a place is limited since I have visited most places that interest me after a conference).

What is the best and most diplomatic way to decline without causing too much damage?

If your group leader is sympathetic to your climate concerns you can just tell them. If not, I would make up some other reason (concurrent obligations, some family commitment, etc.). As you can see from the comments, the sad reality is that some people will get really upset if you bring up climate concerns, and start questioning your commitment to academia. If you are unsure I would probably make up a white lie.

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    +1 This answer is much more nuanced than several of the other answers and many of the comments. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 11:30
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    I somehow managed to get through a 20-year career as PhD student, postdoc, and lecturer without ever attending a conference outside my home country (UK). If that's a "severe hindrance", I must be a flippin' genius. (Supplementary information: I'm not a flippin' genius.) (I did travel overseas by air for work on a few occasions, but for access to specialist laboratories, not for conferences.) Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 14:47
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    @DanielHatton Fair enough. I know a couple of people who tried the same model and ran into issues around their postdoc / young faculty career stages, and can't for the life of them figure out why other people get invited to give keynotes or participate in large grants and they do not ...
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 7:29
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    @DanielHatton Which is to say - I still maintain it's a substantial disadvantage, and not one I would recommend to put on yourself lightly.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 7:29
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    @DanielHatton But isn't that just because a lot of conferences which gather people together tend to be in the UK for whatever reason? It just so happens that you live in the UK so don't have to leave the country to go to these conferences. Contrast this with someone who lived in Slovenia or Egypt, say, and only wanted to go to national-level conferences and not fly to other countries.
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 10:48
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The problem with this type of opportunity is that you can't predict the outcome. It could be that you receive great applause after your presentation, and then someone approaches you with a job offer (this actually happened to me!) Or it could be that you attend, give your talk, nobody talks to you throughout the conference, and it turns out to be an absolute waste of time (this has happened to me more times than I can count). And then the Earth's climate is a bit warmer because of you.

I will argue that the critical piece of information in your question is that you are a PhD student. You need all the contacts you can get, and all the exposure you can get. The person who suggested you as replacement will owe you a solid one. The conference organizers will thank you. If there's a banquet, they might seat you with the big wigs. And you are at the stage where you need to get your ideas in front of as many people as possible.

If you decide to decline the invitation, however, it won't be career suicide. The reasons you were invited in the first place will remain to be true. And the Earth will thank you.

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    OP might wish to consider whether their own staying home would actually decrease CO2 emissions. Would somebody else from their same location do the same flying instead? I acknowledge an ethical dimension (not wishing to do so regardless of others’ choices), but from the practical “Will the climate suffer?” perspective, the choice may not have as much impact as it originally seemed to. Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 14:51
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    Or it could be that you attend, give your talk, nobody talks to you throughout the conference, and it turns out to be an absolute waste of time. A presentation at an international conference is a non-trivial item on a CV, particularly for a young researcher, so it will not be a waste of time. Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 6:56
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I personally try avoid flying whenever possible due to the impact of flying on climate change. [...] I think it is insane to fly halfway around the world for a presentation that takes 1 hour.

I think this is an odd opinion for a researcher to have about their own group's work. Surely the reason you are doing research at all is because you think there is enough value in it?

Consider how much effort and resources went into the research project which culminated in this conference submission. Perhaps a few researchers spent a few weeks each on it, which means that bright minds were focused on that project rather than something else; and other costs may have been incurred. If it's insane to fly halfway around the world to present the results, is it not also insane to do the research that produced those results in order to present them? After all, submitting the results to an international conference was presumably the end-goal of this project from its inception.

You're probably thinking at this point that the paper containing the same results will be published in the conference proceedings, and people can read that paper whether or not you present at the conference. But the number of people who will ever read that paper, is probably at best similar to the number who would see your presentation; and certainly more people will read it if you present than if you don't.

So telling your group leader that you would rather not present for this reason, is essentially saying that you think presenting this work would have less value for the world than the cost of one plane journey's worth of CO2. Not only should you not say that to your group leader (it would be incredibly rude!), but if you really believe it, then it seems like you should have a much bigger decision to make about your work than just whether to present at this one conference. Is there some other research you could be doing instead, that would be worth presenting?


Consider this analogy: suppose Amy is tasked with driving across town to deliver a book to Bob, and Amy declines because driving will cause CO2 emissions. Without judging Amy for her decision, we still must conclude that Amy thinks the value of Bob receiving that book is less than the CO2 cost of one car journey.

This is not a cost-benefit analysis, and I'm not saying Amy should or shouldn't deliver the book. Rather I'm saying if she decides not to for this reason, then that reveals that she does not value Bob getting the book that much.

Now suppose that Amy is the author of that book! To me, there is an obvious question: if Amy doesn't think the book is worth delivering to a reader, why did she think it was worth writing and getting printed? Not only is the cost of creating the book much greater than the CO2 cost of delivering it, but the value of creating it depends on it being delivered.

And again, I'm not saying that Amy should think the book she wrote is valuable, nor am I prescribing what action Amy should take. I'm saying it seems like Amy has deeper things to figure out than just whether to make this one delivery to Bob.

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    This is not very convincing as a cost-benefit analysis. Maybe there are other conferences that are not so far away, or online. Maybe OP does not have much freedom in the research topics that he/she works on. As Christian Hennig has said, some people think the whole idea of flying round the world all the time to present research is a bad idea, or at least they are understanding of that view in others.
    – gib
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 11:40
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    @gib My answer fundamentally is not a cost-benefit analysis. It cannot be, since I have no idea what research OP is doing or what its other costs are or what its benefits might be. My answer instead is about what value the OP places on their own work. If they can't think of any benefits that would be as significant as the CO2 attributable to one person taking one plane journey, then the logical implication is that they don't think the work they are doing is even slightly valuable ─ and it's hard to imagine anyone having a successful career in research if they think their own work is worthless.
    – kaya3
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 11:56
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    @ChristianHennig The OP said, as I quoted, "I think it is insane to fly halfway around the world for a presentation that takes 1 hour.". I haven't said the OP isn't torn on this decision despite thinking that, but they do think that and they said so. The point is that if they are torn on that then it stands to reason they ought to be torn on the broader issue of whether it is worth doing the research they are doing.
    – kaya3
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 13:27
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    There's a big leap between, on the one hand, thinking there is value in one's research, and, on the other hand, thinking there is value specifically in presenting that research at an in-person conference in a location of intercontinental distance from one's home institution, and a further leap to thinking that value is sufficient to justify the CO₂ emissions associated with a journey by air. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 14:39
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    As for the last "leap", I very specifically am not saying that the value in OP's work is sufficient to justify the CO2 cost; it would be impossible for me to say that, since I don't know what OP's work is or what its impact could be. I don't know where you got the idea that I am saying that.
    – kaya3
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 15:09
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You might look at the consequences of your action.

If you refuse because you have objections to flying as such: someone else will have to go and nothing has changed.

If you refuse because you are afraid of flying and being in another country: You should honor your feelings, but also consider to overcome them by just doing it. But at least you have a reason that your advisor can accept.

If you refuse on general grounds: You might be missing out on opportunities to learn and to interact with others. You might be loosing out on making connections that last for your whole professional career. (I speak from experience.) Also, there is a reason that conferences are still the primary way of disseminating ideas in CS: enough happens at conferences to justify the personal costs of the attendees (and the financial costs to who-ever has to bear them).

If you refuse: Your group lead has made a commitment and your group needs to honor it. You were selected for a reason. Maybe your lead sees this as an opportunity to "put you on the market", or to allow you to "start making contacts", or to introduce you to the world of science. Your refusal will put you at least temporarily into the category of "difficult Ph.D. students".

If you do not refuse: At worst, you have a few days of traveling and feeling out of your safe zone. At best, you learn better how the scientific world works, you are exposed to new ideas, you have the chance to make contacts, especially with other Ph.D. students, you make a valuable contribution to your group's work, ...

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 2:19
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I understand your dilemma, but you'd be making a mistake to refuse that, and would look very bad, internationally. Thus, a big negative right even before having a career. Now, let's explore why is that. You said that you were selected instead of more senior colleagues, right? So this means that your group leader has FAITH in you. Now, do you want to disappoint him/her solely on the fact of "the impact of flying on climate change"? And what about the impact of that presentation? Sorry, but you sound selfish here...

You know, among the most hated people on this planet are those taking integrity to an extreme. Those people, generally, don't bring anything good to the table and are a nuisance. On the other end, those with very low, if not none at all, integrity are the worst of the worst ones. It's all about BALANCE. Also, as said above, what would be the impact on your lecture? That impact could very much offset the negative impact on planet Earth. The positive impact could be global, or affecting those present who in turn will do better in life, and/or even help you to get a better career, therefore to do more good in the future.

This being said, there are also circumstances where it's a total waste of time and energy but since you didn't tell anyone what that conference is about, and no other relevant info, then we can't say much.

Last, many would see it negatively that a young person working on his/her Ph.D. is refusing an opportunity and honor like that. Thus, closing many doors in the future. But, again, you avoided telling us what it is, so it could be a good thing to refuse something shady, and totally worthless. If so, refusing would make you look good.

Bottom line, based on the little info you gave us, refusing based on your reasons would have a serious negative impact, besides making you look selfish and narrow-minded. Everything is about perception and one with no audience or despised can't do much good... Think about Cousteau. He gained fame in order to get the necessary funding for the ocean's exploration, and got ocean awareness to an international awareness. Yep, he spent tons of fossil fuel traveling and with his boat, but the gains were much higher than the negatives. Having had your non-productive and narrow-minded attitude nothing of that would have been possible. And what about David Suzuki? Do you think he's traveling the world on foot and swimming to bring awareness and good things to planet Earth?

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    There a maybe small but growing number of scientists who are increasingly critical on the idea that in order to do our jobs why should fly around the globe all the time, and there are even some who can appreciate such an attitude in a young academic. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 10:11
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    It sounds the opposite of selfish to me. As for your idea that too much integrity is bad and it is better to strike a balance between complete integrity and no integrity, this is completely wrong. But if you just meant that people need to strike a balance when it comes to deciding between conference travel and CO2 emissions, then that is a reasonable opinion (and I think that OP's position is very sensible).
    – gib
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 11:28
  • I knew a PhD student who was against flying, he missed out on summer schools because of it and ended up struggling to finish his PhD. I just think it's the wrong attitude if a person wants to stay in academia and is so early in their career.
    – Tom
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 10:50
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    @cconsta1 Just a quick note to say thanks for editing my spelling/grammar :) English is not my mother language and your corrections helped me get better at it.
    – Diablo
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 17:19
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As apparently some people seriously believe that not going could amount to "career suicide", let me add to what has already been posted by saying that I am not aware of any single case in academia in which anything even remotely similar to the decision discussed here has come up as an argument when it came to admission decisions, and neither have I ever seen anything like this mentioned in reference letters. So I don't think there is any hard evidence that such a decision has ever had any direct negative impact (other than opportunity cost) on anyone's career.

Of course this doesn't exclude the possibility that such a decision may make a bad impression on somebody influential, which can have an informal impact, although I don't have evidence of this either from talking privately to scientists (admittedly some discussion comments here could be seen as constituting such evidence). Still, I am far from convinced that just the decision to be made now will have any negative impact at any more than negligible probability on career prospects other than simply missing anything positive that could come out of going there.

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