The topic of Decarbonizing Research Methods provided the focus of two workshops (in-person/hybrid and online) on the 18th and on the 25th of November 2022, organised by Ashley Cahillane (School of English, final year PhD) and I (Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha, Roinn na Gaeilge & Ionad an Léinn Éireannaigh, second year PhD).
What follows is a reflection on how the events came about, an overview of three of the main themes arising from workshop activities and presentations, and some thoughts about where the ideas generated in our discussions may go next.
What is Decarbonizing Research?
Ashley and I both work on ecocritical literary studies as part of our doctoral research: she, on representations of water scarcity in contemporary English-language novels; I, on ecocritical readings of Irish-language poetry in the Anthropocene era.
We began to brainstorm in summer 2022 how we might be able to take our passion for our ecocritical research and apply it, in a practical sense, to an interdisciplinary workshop which would open up discussions about some of the practical issues that face researchers when it comes to decarbonizing our research methods. But what is research decarbonization, precisely? Is it the same as research sustainability, say?
If sustainability is taken to be, according to National Geographic, ‘the practice of using natural resources responsibly today, so they are available for future generations tomorrow’, decarbonization has a more specific goal in reducing our dependence upon carbon-based fuel and energy sources in all aspects of life, which in turn will reduce the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is no small task, as Renee Cho notes, writing in the Columbia University Climate School newsletter State of the Planet:
To achieve decarbonization, all aspects of the economy must change—from how energy is generated, and how we produce and deliver goods and services, to how lands are managed.
As research is part of the economy, it follows that it must also change. One of the tangible ways of grappling with how to decarbonize research is interrogating our research methods – how we conduct research – to elucidate how they might be contributing to carbon emissions and how they might be decarbonized.
Complex undertakings, such as decarbonization, often benefit from diversity in the problem-solving process. Thus, it was important to the spirit of our workshops that they would be as interdisciplinary as possible, to allow for ideas from science, humanities, engineering, and so forth, to percolate together and highlight differences in approaches as well as areas for potential cooperation.
I’ll talk about three overarching themes that arose over the course of the two Decarbonizing Research Methods workshops. Additionally, I’ll focus on research-specific decarbonizing ideas, although the ideas that apply to us all, such as proper recycling practices, reducing plastic use, etc., are no less important to the future of decarbonizing society.
Theme 1: INCORPORATION
An important theme that arose from our discussions was the need to incorporate decarbonization and sustainability into all aspects and stages of research. Many workshop participants noted that they were interested in decarbonizing their research, but had no idea where to start, or with whom to discuss matters, since the decarbonization of their research processes were not emphasised or required. It often meant that taking steps to decarbonize research became an additional work task, as opposed to being incorporated already into research structures.
An example of this would be applications for research funding, which do not, generally, contain a requirement to discuss research sustainability or carbon offsets of activities. If implemented into research funding application requirements, this might be a factor which would encourage researchers to think ahead to how they might decarbonize their PhD projects, for example, while writing their postgraduate funding applications. Something similar has been done before in terms of the ‘Sex/Gender’ requirement on the Irish Research Council (IRC) application form. Under the 2013 ‘Gender Strategy and Action Plan’, the IRC laid out a new objective in terms of integrating awareness of sex and gender into their research funding processes:
Activities falling under this objective have included requiring applications to indicate whether their research includes a potential sex/gender dimension, facilitating researchers to correctly identify and recognise whether or not there is a potential sex/gender dimension in their proposed research, to provide a range of training and guidance to researchers and assessors and to include a review of the sex/gender dimension in the ongoing monitoring and review process of funded research proposals.
This example shows how funding bodies can respond to the contemporary needs of research conduct and ethics. A requirement to think about the carbon outputs of research would encourage researchers to consider these issues from the outset. As the IRC recognizes, training and guidance on these new requirements is essential. It is also important to reflect that additional funding requirements would likely make these applications more strenuous for the individual scholar. This is a point that we’ll return to in the next theme.
In terms of the visibility of incorporation, our workshops discussed the Green Labs initiative in University of Galway, an initiative which aims to reduce waste and energy use in laboratory environments, which are some of the most resource-intensive spaces in the university. As Humanities scholars ourselves, it was interesting to see how visibility and a process of accreditation for sustainability could encourage scholars of all stages to participate in making their work environments less resource-intensive.
An important point of variance between science and humanities on this front is that it can be easier, in some senses, to measure how a lab can reduce waste (i.e. counting it and weighing it) as labs use more tangible goods and resources, such as pipettes, gloves, and test tubes. It might not be so easy for a Humanities scholar to measure the difference or progress in their decarbonization process. Much of our work is based on reading, interacting with texts or performance, or archival work, and its carbon outputs are not so readily quantifiable. However, as we noted in our discussions, Humanities approaches are essential as they can challenge societal norms through their engagements with forms of art and culture which aim to disrupt the extractivist status quo.
Many scholars feel guilt at not knowing what to do in terms of incorporating the tenets of decarbonization into their research, or where to begin. Irish scholar Michael Cronin, in his work Irish and Ecology, sums it up well: ‘the difficulty is that guilt can be as much a reason for inaction as action’.
The solutions to guilt and confusion among researchers involve providing information by incorporating the principles of decarbonization into research processes, and empowering researchers to make informed choices through providing them with the tools and skills that they need to negotiate the terrain of decarbonization.
Creating these structures and protocols entails incorporating these tenets into the structures of the academy. Closely related to these ideas of ‘incorporation’, thus, is institutional support, staffing, and university resources.
Theme 2: SUPPORT
Another theme that arose in our workshop discussions was institutional support for these measures, or, all too often, the lack thereof. Workshop attendees expressed a desire to decarbonize their research, but felt that they had little guidance in how to do so. The Green Labs initiative, already mentioned, is an excellent example of a supportive network which provides opportunities for researchers to engage with sustainable methods in the lab setting. This instance is one that highlights the importance of support structures, particularly for younger, less secure scholars.
While universities often have sustainability strategies and policies, most of which are available online in downloadable formats, we felt as though the commendable tenets and recommendations of these documents were often not filtering down into day-to-day practices of research. Scholars need support and training to make changes, and this support should come from visible university policies and permanent sustainability staff, who can set precedents and expectations, and support less secure scholars and students to make changes.
Many people who are invested in the questions of decarbonizing research, sustainability, and biodiversity are often working on these matters on a voluntary, unpaid basis, as is the case with University of Galway’s own Community and University Sustainability Partnership (CUSP) committee. While the work these volunteers do is important and valuable, some participants felt that full-time paid staff members with a specific brief on these matters would be the best way to increase support and resources for scholars in terms of decarbonizing their research practices – even at the granular level of knowing whom to ask for advice, or whom to email. This is not to undervalue the important work that part-time staff and volunteers do, but more to recognize that further supports – such as a Vice-President for Sustainability – are sorely needed to build upon the foundations of volunteer and part-time labour. This has been recognized in University College Cork, which invited applications to the role of Associate Vice President of Sustainability in October 2022.
Support for decarbonizing research needs to be provided to scholars in a proactive fashion, anticipating some of the challenges that will crop up. It is crucially important to incentivize decarbonizing behaviours, but this must be supported by full-time staff who could provide the logistical and technical know-how to deal with issues such as choosing slow travel over air travel, providing hybrid facilities for international conference attendees, and so forth. Decarbonization means employing more support staff and creating a foundation of knowledge and expertise within the university structure to circulate ideas and best practice through all departments and schools, while supporting and training scholars to help them decarbonize.
Theme 3: EQUITY
The issue of equity underlies all facets of decarbonizing research While decarbonizing might seem a self-evident good to which we all should aspire, questions remain: Who is able to decarbonize, and who should decarbonize first? In the wider context of climate equity, the World Resources Institute notes that:
Those least responsible for climate change are often the most vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, sea level rise, and other impacts, further exacerbating existing inequities.
How do we consider this within the academy? Let us think through an example. If universities were to consider implementing carbon allocations or entitlements for staff in relation to flying to international conferences, how would these be distributed, and how could we ensure that entitlements would be distributed equitably? In terms of the university’s own profile and reach, it might make sense for senior scholars who are field experts to be given more leeway, as they would undoubtedly bring more name recognition to the university than an early-career research assistant or PhD student would.
However, it perhaps would be more equitable to allow junior scholars more scope to travel to international events, as they need to build up networks through interactions with other scholars, something which senior established scholars may not need to do to the same extent. So, senior scholars would be incentivised to participate in some international conferences virtually, while allowing more of the university carbon budget to be allocated to junior researchers who don’t have as much in-person networking under their belts.
In terms of ability to decarbonize, it is also important to note that the individual researcher will pay more in terms of time and money if they choose lower-carbon forms of transport, as things stand now. If we plan an imaginary trip to Wales from the 16th to the 20th of January 2023, a return ferry from Dublin to Holyhead costs €63, while a return flight on a budget airline (albeit at a value fare) is €16.44 from Dublin to Cardiff. This is not a huge difference, but could be a significant increase in monetary costs for some researchers.
Added to this would be the time costs involved, with a considerable difference again: the ferry takes three hours and fifteen minutes and the flight takes only one hour. Again, this is not an enormous difference, but could be consequential for researchers who may have caring responsibilities. The cost disparities, particularly time costs, between lower-carbon travel and air travel would increase the further we have to venture. The lower-carbon travel option takes more time and costs more money, ruling out these options for many researchers.
The most vulnerable researchers, among whom may be lone parents, carers, those without funding, unaffiliated scholars, those without permanent positions, and those from lower-income backgrounds, should be shielded from the immediate costs of decarbonization. Researchers with permanent contracts, with adequate funding and/or salaries, and with tenured positions, should be encouraged, through institutional backing, incentivization, and support, to shoulder some costs of the decarbonizing process. This is not to preclude anyone from considering decarbonization on an individual basis, but rather to highlight the disparities in the capabilities of researchers to reduce their carbon emissions immediately.
The principle of decarbonization equity should also apply to scholars from the Global South and from postcolonial nations, who have historically had less access to the academy, according to The Conversation:
Researchers based in the global North have a wider global reach and are generally judged to be at the forefront of knowledge production and dissemination. Meanwhile, South-based scholars are often not part of major debates and conversations in their field.
International conferences, therefore, could encourage the attendance of early-career researchers and researchers from the Global South, while offering high-quality streaming facilities for those who elect to attend virtually. The principle of equity, therefore, is an important facet of decarbonizing research, and one that needs to be integrated into our other two themes, incorporation and support, to decarbonize research in the academy in a fair way.
This short article has detailed some of the major discussion points that arose from the Decarbonizing Research Methods workshops. As can be seen from our discussions, decarbonization is a goal that all facets of society and economy should aim for, including our universities. And yet, it is a goal that requires careful planning, outreach, incentivization, and support, so that decarbonization can be rolled out and integrated into as many facets of academic life as possible, in a fair and equitable way. As a valuable and dynamic part of society, culture, and the economy, the academy – our universities, archives, libraries, institutes, and colleges – must be at the forefront of decarbonization.
This blog could not have been written without the enthusiasm and participation of our workshop attendees. Thank you to all who took part. I mention here also the presenters, administrators, hosts, sponsors, and advisors who contributed their expertise and support to these events:
Dr Patrick Bresnihan
Dr Vincent Carragher
Dr Nessa Cronin
Prof Frances Fahy
Dr Mel Farrell
Dr Maxim Fomin
Dr Siobhán Gaughan
Prof Patrick Lonergan
The Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences
The Insight SFI Centre for Data Analytics
The Irish Humanities Alliance
 ‘Sustainability’, National Geographic. Available at: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/sustainability [accessed 02 Dec 2022].
 Cho, Renee (2022) ‘What Is Decarbonization, and How Do We Make It Happen?’ State of the Planet. Available at: https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/04/22/what-is-decarbonization-and-how-do-we-make-it-happen/ [accessed 10 Dec 2022].
 Christensen, Karen (2015) ‘The importance of diversity of thought for solving wicked problems’, Forbes India. Available at: https://www.forbesindia.com/article/rotman/the-importance-of-diversity-of-thought-for-solving-wicked-problems/40621/1 [accessed 14 Dec 2022].
The Irish Research Council (2013) ‘The Sex/Gender Dimension of Research’, Review of the Irish Research Council Gender Strategy and Action Plan. Available at: https://research.ie/assets/uploads/2022/03/IRCGenderPlan-s.pdf [accessed 12 Jan 2023].
 Cronin, Michael (2019) An Ghaeilge agus an Éiceolaíocht / Irish and Ecology. Foilseacháin Ábhair Spioradálta: Baile Átha Cliath, 46.
 NUI Galway Sustainability Strategy: Leading the transition to a sustainable future, 2021-2025. Available at: https://www.universityofgalway.ie/media/sustainability/files/NUI-Galway-Sustainability-Strategy-2021-2025.pdf [accessed 03 Jan 2022].
 World Resources Institute (2015) ‘Building Climate Equity: Creating a New Approach from the Ground Up’. Available at: https://www.wri.org/research/building-climate-equity [access 10 Dec 2022].
 For more detail on these matters, see:
Anne Pasek’s [member of Low Carbon Methods] article: https://estsjournal.org/index.php/ests/article/view/363/223
ALLEA Report on Academic Sustainability: https://www.ria.ie/sites/default/files/allea-report-towards-climate-sustainability-of-the-academic-system.pdf
 Medie, Peace A. & Kang, Alice J. (2018) ‘Global South scholars are missing from European and US journals. What can be done about it?’ The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/global-south-scholars-are-missing-from-european-and-us-journals-what-can-be-done-about-it-99570 [accessed 10 Jan 2023].
Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha
Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha is a PhD researcher in the University of Galway. She spent three years as a research assistant on the IRC-funded Laureate Project, Republic of Conscience: Human Rights and Modern Irish Poetry. She began her PhD research in September 2021, and her thesis explores ecocritical readings of modern Irish-language poetry.