Securing Sustainability in Science

Jacob White
13 min readJun 28, 2021

A science policy essay on the importance of tying science funding to sustainability in order to combat climate change.

The future of US science policy needs to account for the broader needs of society. To meet the full reduction in carbon emissions necessary to limit the impacts of the climate crisis, sustainability initiatives must be fully integrated into science policy funding.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch snapped this image of Hurricane Dorian on the International Space Station during a flyover on Monday, September 2, 2019. Image Credit: NASA

The Earth’s climate is rapidly changing and we, as scientists, citizens, and policymakers, are not rising to the challenge of adequately reducing our carbon footprint. We are currently on pace to exceed the total carbon emission budget (Emission Gap 2020) designed to keep global warming below the 1.5 C level outlined in the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC 2015). Many nations and organizations have made the climate a priority in economic, domestic, and foreign policy (UN Climate Action Plan 2019). But just as we are all collectively responsible for the current climate crisis, so too are we all responsible for taking the lead in reducing our carbon footprint.

No matter what your vision entails for the future of science and US science policy, we must have a society that can allocate resources to science. The costs of the climate crisis are quickly starting to rise. Climate and weather-related disasters in the US alone have cost nearly $2 Trillion since 1980 (Smith et al. 2019). If we do not meet the standards laid out in the Paris Agreement, climate change mitigation and disaster relief could quickly become the largest line items in the federal budget. To secure the future of science and ensure that it is not competing for disaster relief funding, we must prioritize sustainability in scientific research now.

While it is important to consider that different fields of scientific research have drastically different needs, they all share one requirement — funding. We must make lowering our carbon footprint as high of a priority as producing top-quality scientific results. To avoid prioritizing certain scientific fields over others, this goal can be met by tying federal funding to sustainability. Grant funding is the lifeblood that keeps scientific research progressing all across the world. Therefore, an excellent motivator to de-carbonize scientific research, or at least lower its footprint, is to make sustainability initiatives a requirement to receive funding.

We can achieve the goal of lowering the overall carbon footprint of science by bringing sustainability to the forefront of five key areas of science: travel, institutions, lab work, outreach, and funding proposals. This will require a unified approach across all funding agencies — but the solution is simple. To receive federal funding, grant proposers must demonstrate they are currently, or will be, moving towards certain sustainability goals within these 5 areas.

Sustainability in Travel

Flying can easily be one of the biggest sources of carbon emission for a scientific researcher. International travel to conferences, visiting collaborators, and scientific fieldwork very often requires a long-haul flight. Of course, not all of this travel is completely avoidable, but much of it could be.

Many academic conferences switched to a virtual, or online, format due to the effects of the global covid-19 pandemic. The virtual meeting format is still actively improving as more people get experience running them, but the feasibility of online conferences has been clearly demonstrated.

The carbon footprint of a given virtual conference is significantly lower than the in-person equivalent. The American Geophysical Union meetings, which regularly see upwards of 25,000 attendees, can generate 80,000 tons of CO2 for their in-person meetings from flying alone (Klöwer et al. 2020). A study presented in the climate-focused issue of Nature found that the total carbon emissions of the virtual 2020 European Astronomical Society Meeting were 3000 times lower than the in-person meeting from 2019, even though the number of attendees was larger (Burtscher et al. 2020).

Federal grants should come with stipulations that flying should be avoided whenever possible. One way to decrease the total number of flights taken by academics is to encourage virtual participation in conferences. The majority of scientific researchers have already expressed a desire for virtual meetings to continue in the future. A poll in Nature found that 74% of researchers (Remmel 2020) want virtual meetings to continue in some capacity post-covid. The reasons given included not only the lower carbon footprint of virtual meetings (Moss et al. 2021), but also the lower cost of attendance, increased inclusivity, and more geographically diverse audiences.

In particular, this means funding needs to be allocated such that it can be used to purchase the necessary subscriptions to online platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Slack, as well as IT personnel, to ensure a smooth conference experience. A combination of in-person plus virtual participation for meetings in the future ensures that necessary networking experiences for early career researchers are still available, the conferences are inclusive to all attendees who cannot travel, and the overall carbon footprint of the conference is much lower.

Many institutions currently stipulate that the cheapest mode of travel must be made if the expense is to be reimbursable. In situations where travel cannot be avoided, alternate sources of transportation such as taking the train or carpooling should be given priority even if the total cost is more than airfare.

There are of course situations where flying is completely unavoidable. An in-person meeting is sometimes the only option. Fieldwork in remote areas (or overseas) can often only be completed if there is an option to fly. In these instances, travel funding should stipulate that direct flights should be taken whenever possible. Multiple layovers in a flight can lower the total cost, but in doing so they raise the carbon footprint, sometimes significantly.

Finally, carbon offsets for unavoidable flights should also be included in travel expenses and built into the total grant’s travel considerations. To ensure that a given estimate of the total carbon emissions for a flight is accurate, there should be a federally sponsored emissions calculator. This could be tied to an existing calculator (e.g., on the EPA website; EPA, n.d.) but expanded to include options for the details of the flight.

Sustainability in Institutions

Most researchers have a home institution or university at which they are based for some or all of their work. To receive federal funding, the Principle Investigator (PI) must demonstrate the sustainable practices currently in place at their host organization. As sustainability becomes adopted at the university and organizational level, a given PI will have greater access to tools that can decarbonize their research. For example, the University of California at Berkeley (UCB 2018) and Yale (Yale 2020) have sustainability policies and commitments to the environment. Practices such as these could be used to highlight how the PI will work with their institution to ensure certain carbon budget thresholds are met in their research.

I have worked at institutions that did not have any semblance of adequate sustainability initiatives and institutions that did not have the financial means to implement anything. When these issues are brought up, they can be met with strong resistance. If the current institution does not currently have a commitment to sustainability, or the resources to develop one, supplemental grant funding can be specifically allocated to meet these requirements. These resources can help ease the burden of implementation that an institution that does not currently prioritize sustainability may have.

Stricter requirements can unfortunately disproportionately affect smaller institutions, HBCUs, underfunded institutions, or newly established organizations. Therefore it is key to have a separate pool of funding dedicated to growing or expanding a PI’s host institution’s sustainability initiatives. This is imperative to ensure that the stricter funding requirements outlined here are not discriminating against researchers from these institutions.

To meet these requirements, there must be a set of federal guidelines laid out with instructions on how best to establish sustainability within a given institution/organization. These guidelines will also have the benefit of being a publicly available resource for lowering your carbon footprint. This would include how to set up a sustainability committee, how to perform a carbon audit, funding for carbon audits, resources on lowering an institution’s carbon footprint, recycling initiatives, sourcing green energy from the power company, and training on how to implement these initiatives.

Sustainability in the Lab

There will not be a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing the carbon footprint of a specific institution, lab, or research group. For example, a biology research group may require frequent flights to remote areas of the world to conduct fieldwork. A chemistry lab may require specific raw materials that have a large carbon footprint in their industrial production. And a theoretical physics lab may require significant time on supercomputers, which require large amounts of electricity to operate (Portegies 2020).

Many of the ways a research group can lower its carbon footprint are outlined in the above sections addressing institutions and flying. If the electricity powering a lab or computational resources is the primary source of a group’s carbon emissions, then it is largely at the mercy of the host institution. A single group is only a small part of the larger network of researchers at a university or institution, so stipulating that federal grants can only be taken to institutions with sustainable practices in place (or allocating funding such that this can be set up) will motivate a given institution to foster a lower carbon footprint environment.

It is an unavoidable fact that some scientific research can only be done at locations far away from the lab, meaning long-haul flights are necessary. Unless the aviation industry becomes carbon neutral, flying will likely be the biggest source of emission for these scientists. Therefore, the changes in policy outlined above in the section on travel will have the biggest impact on these researchers’ footprint.

The production of the raw materials needed for, e.g., a chemistry wet lab, will often be outside the scope or ability of a given research group. This leads to most materials being purchased from dedicated manufacturing companies. Unfortunately, the scientists purchasing the material do not have a say in how it is produced, or how sustainability may or may not be considered in the overall supply chain. But the scientists do have a valuable tool at their disposal — being picky consumers.

More often than not, the source of funding for these raw materials is federal grants. If the federal grants stipulate that materials must be sourced from manufacturers that follow certain sustainable practices, then scientists-as-consumers will help steer the market toward a much greener production line.

As an astrophysicist, the largest sources of carbon emission in my work are from travel and telescope operation. The issues with flying can be alleviated by adopting the policy framework in Sustainability in Travel outlined above. Most modern telescopes are primarily funded by federal agencies. For example, the Very Large Array in New Mexico is funded by the NSF (VLA n.d.) and the Hubble Space Telescope is funded through NASA (HST 2021). Proposals for new facilities and upgrades to existing ones must take measures to lower the carbon footprint of the facility. Operational funding that is approved on a year-to-year basis must allocate resources for performing carbon audits of facilities and then taking measures to reduce the carbon footprint where appropriate. Publicly releasing these audits is also key. The efforts made to decarbonize an organization increase accountability and demonstrate an effort to lead by example.

Sustainability in Outreach

Scientists frequently engage with non-scientists through both education and public outreach (EPO). Scientists are generally viewed as very trustworthy (Skinner & Clemence 2019) and can serve a valuable role in educating the public about the negative impacts of climate change. For scientists to continue to be seen as leaders, they must also be seen as leaders in fighting the climate crisis.

Scientists engaging as teachers primarily take place at the university level. Of course, most scientists are not actively involved in teaching a climate-related course. This does not mean, however, that climate change cannot be brought into the lectures in some capacity. For example, some educators (Rector 2019) are leading efforts to bring climate change instruction into university astronomy courses. These initiatives bridge the gap in teaching resources between two seemingly unconnected fields, astronomy and climate science, and highlight how to effectively teach and incorporate climate change since most astronomy educators may not have a background in climate change research (Williamson et al. 2019). Federal teaching grants, such as those offered through the NSF’s Department of Education (DUE n.d.), should come with stipulations that efforts must be made to incorporate climate change into the curriculum of entry-level STEM courses.

Public outreach can happen in many different avenues: “pub talks”, science fairs, museums, public talks, etc. Scientists should be encouraged to include some brief tie-ins for how their work is either related to climate change, could be impacted by climate change, or shares similar tools to climate change research — like atmospheric studies of the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus (Cabbage & McCarthy 2016).

While it is true that most science funding is allocated to research as opposed to EPO, there is still a significant amount of money being spent on these efforts. For example, NASA’s 2020 enacted budget included $120 Million for STEM engagement (NASA’s Budget 2020), which is only half a percent of its total budget. Moving forward, these EPO funds must come with the requirement that climate change will be brought into the discussion.

EPO funding should come with the stipulation that climate change must be incorporated into the outreach or education initiatives. This can be accomplished by educating the audience on the impacts of climate change, including how the given research relates to climate (if possible), detailing the efforts made in the presented research to limit its carbon footprint, and discussing how the audience can and must incorporate sustainability into their own lives as well.

Sustainability in Proposals

The previous sections outlined areas where scientists can make improvements to lower their carbon footprint and communicate the seriousness of the climate crisis through EPO efforts. The primary way in which science is funded in the US is through federal grant proposals. Therefore, to ensure that sustainability goals are being met, sustainability must also become a core component of funding proposals themselves.

Federal research grants more and more frequently require the PI to include a broader impacts section and/or a statement on a commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). For example, NSF proposals (NSF 2020) currently require a Broader Impacts statement. Within this statement, PIs “should describe the potential of the proposed activity to benefit society…” In addition to the general intellectual merit of the proposal, this section allows the proposers to highlight how they will enable the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM.

Requiring such a statement in an NSF proposal does not in-and-of-itself address current inequalities in STEM that DEI efforts are working to fix, but it requires all grant writers to stop and think about DEI. Similarly, a required component of all federal grants should be how the PI will incorporate sustainability into the proposed research. A supplemental statement such as this will help proposers start thinking about the sustainability of their science and the carbon footprint of the proposed research.

If federal grant funding is to be used to specifically lower the carbon footprint of a research project through, e.g., allowing funding to be used to purchase carbon offsets or to host virtual meetings/conferences/seminars as opposed to traveling to in-person events, then this should be reflected in the proposal as well.

Consider the NSF proposals again. Currently, the PI must present a plan for “data management and sharing of the products of research, including preservation, documentation, and sharing of data, samples, physical collections, curriculum materials, and other related research and education products should be described in the Special Information and Supplementary Documentation section of the proposal”. Additional supplemental sections can be straightforwardly added to the proposal in which the PI outlines the estimated carbon budget of the proposed research, and how much funding is allocated to both lowering and offsetting the carbon footprint.


Climate change is an ever-growing threat to our safety, our economy, and our way of life. Likewise, the future of US science policy should reflect the future of society. We cannot ignore the environmental impacts of scientific research. If science is to continue to thrive in the US in a carbon-constrained future, then the policy around funding science must make sustainability a priority.

One efficient way to bring sustainability initiatives to the forefront of science is to make them a requirement to receive federal funding. This policy approach will ensure equality between various institutions and fields of research, so that some research areas aren’t prioritized over others, and that historically underfunded institutions can have the resources to incorporate the proposed initiatives.

To secure the future of American science, we must prioritize sustainability in science.


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Jacob White

Dr. Jacob White is a software engineer working on atmospheric modeling and satellite data calibration. He has a PhD in astrophysics and is active in scicomm.