It’s the first of July and incredibly this is the first post I write in 2019.
In 2016 when I started this blog I promised myself I would write a post every second week. Then I went for once a month. Then I decided that posting should not happen on regular basis but just as often as possible and based on quality content. And now here we are, six months of radio silence. So if you are reading this and plan to start a research blog too because you think doing this stuff might be amazing, make sure you have plenty of time and ideas.
So let’s catch up. Here below a I made a shortlist of the absolutely most exciting activities I did last spring.
The main highlight is probably the five-days Bonsai hackathon in the end of March 2019. Google defines an hackathon as: “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.” and that was pretty much about it - except for the fact that there were not really a “large” number of people involved. Now I should mention BONSAI is one of the most interesting projects I have seen in the LCA space since I started working in this area, and I have great expectations about it.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make it physically to the hackathon, and I joined remotely. On one hand I think it was a pity because by being there live I would have gained double as much in terms of knowledge and talks with interesting people. On the other hand I am happy that I have saved some carbon emissions from flying from Denmark to Spain. However, the remote connection worked fairly well, thanks to the organisers for arranging it! I joined the ontology working group and we did some really nice work on definitions, terminology, and conceptually linking of key concepts of LCA and industrial ecology.
Overall it was enriching to meet professional programmers and data scientists and see how they work hands on. For example, I feel now like a pro in git and version control. If you want to know more, Chris Mutel has written here, here, and here about BONSAI and the hackathon.
Muscles from Brussels
I could not avoid some flying to Brussels where I have been invited as expert reviewer for H2020 EU project proposals.
The bad thing about it, apart that this couldn’t be done fully remotely, is that I can’t give any detail without breaching confidentiality, so I’ll keep this in very general terms. The good thing about it is that it was a very formative experience.
First of all, nice to be on the other side of the table for once. Then good to experience hands-on how the peer review of grant applications works. In practice I got a pile of application documents to read and evaluate, hundreds and hundreds of pages. The time allocated for the task was short, and it had to be done after all the normal work hours as it’s an extra. Nevertheless, overall I found the review process has been truly thorough.
From a personal development perspective, I feel I am now in a much better position to write my own applications (I have written already a bit about applications for funding and the quasi-masochistic pleasures of rejection here).
Another thing I can say is that the European Commission needs expert reviewers. So if you are up for the task sign up in the EU expert portal and they might actually call you.
Advanced LCA 2019
Last day of our #PhD course on Advanced #LCA - "Consequential and IO-based life cycle sustainability assessment" in Aalborg. It's a privilege to teach to 25 brilliant students. 🤟 @aautech @ILCA_BCN pic.twitter.com/5yJ47NeBxo— Massimo Pizzol (@m_outreach) May 16, 2019
Aaaaand last but not least we run our yearly PhD course in advanced LCA. Full house, with 25 carefully selected brilliant international students. I mean, really one could not ask for a better audience as in the end these are all very smart students and…you can bring the teaching to another level. And I didn’t have to fly at all! Many others had to do it though…so why didn’t we make this a remote course? I’ll return on this below.
Compared to last year we made several changes to the course and one of them is introducing a new module on advanced LCA modelling with open source LCA software Brightway2. I based this module on pilot teaching material that I tested last year, but this time I moved the whole code into Jupyter notebooks that are nicer for presentation live, revised it fully, and added new things.
Besides a basic introduction to Brightway2 data structures and functions this module included some interesting (I think) stochastic LCA modelling approaches such as statistical testing for differences between alternatives (useful for comparative LCAs) and local and global sensitivity analysis (Sobol method).
First time for me teaching two full days at such high level but everybody survived so it was probably not that bad. Got very constructive feedback from the students too, that will help me improving further. The course runs every year so if you want to join get in touch.
Summing up, time has been flying. But this flight is not a zero emission one. Academic flying is the bonus topic of this post, the real elephant in the room of the climate-aware scientist these days.
It’s easy to see that my best highlights of the last six months are all activities that one way or another involve international collaboration, and travel. These are the really nice events, the exciting ones. But using flying as transport option is a very carbon intensive choice, so how much should I do it? Is it even morally acceptable given the circumstances (climate crisis)? Since I work in the sustainability area shouldn’t I be the first to walk the talk?
This is the point where I should say something clever but to be honest, the only intelligent thing I can say is that the transition to a low/no flying academic culture is in principle possible but probably not happening yet at scale. It’s difficult to loosen the grip.
I joined the BONSAI hackathon remotely, but why do I still wish I were there? And why can’t the review of EU proposal be done fully remotely? And why can’t we make a web version of our PhD course? I guess the answer is that meeting people remotely is OK, but meeting them in person is something else. But probably also a luxury that will become very scarce in the future.
Right now my strategy for academic flying is the following (bullet points not in a specific order):
- Prioritise based on quality. Reduce the number of conferences to only the very relevant ones (e.g. because a lot of key people can be met there, or because scientific content is tops), preferably attend workshops where I actually get something done. Difficulty: Piece of cake1.
- Prioritise heavily based on geography. Attend events that can be reached by train/car. Stay within EU. If the usual events are too far, find new ones. Difficulty: Let’s rock.
- Go all in with remote attendance whenever possible. Ask for it if not explicitly contemplated. Difficulty: Come get some
- If I have to fly, it must be important. If unavoidable (e.g. project meetings where I can’t influence location and must attend) combine with holidays. Difficulty: Damn I’m good
And let’s face it, I am not such a famous and busy scientist that needs to travel everywhere so most of these choices are no big deal for me really.
But what about the PhD course? It’s not up to me alone to decide on the course and honestly, I like teaching in person…and I have the feeling that an e-learning version won’t be just as good. There are some social dynamics at play here. So I don’t have an answer to this question right now. Tricky.
Some references to conclude. For an overview on the topic of academic flying, check this free presentation by Kimberly Nicholas of Lund University. For LCA people, check this paper by Miguel Astudillo (who now sits in the office next to mine!) about estimating the global warming emissions of the LCAXVII conference. For the nerdy, there is a decision tree on academic flying on page 24 of the report Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century . Have a nice read.
The four difficulty levels are taken directly from the 1996 video-game Duke Nukem 3D, which I played extensively on my PC back in my good old teenager days. Ready for action. ↩