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Good science shouldn’t cost the earth


Act now to reduce research’s huge carbon footprint, say Madeleine Luck and Martin Farley

The past decade has seen a lot of work to address the wasteful and inefficient aspects of science and healthcare research. This has led to well-established certifications and networks to encourage sustainable laboratory practices, such as UCL’s Lab Efficiency Assessment Framework and the Sustainable European Laboratories network. 

Funders are also addressing this challenge. In 2022, the Medical Research Council announced a £1 million call seeking ways to make life sciences and medical research more sustainable. Such analysis is timely, as higher education and healthcare institutions set ambitious carbon reduction targets in the face of spiralling energy bills. Yet systemic challenges remain for those tackling the issues of waste and inefficiency in scientific research. One is to identify the scale of the problem by measuring science’s carbon footprint. 

Historically, it has not been possible to assess the overall carbon emissions of scientific research. While some things are relatively easy to measure, such as facilities’ energy consumption and the carbon footprint of some travel, there is little accurate data on what are known as indirect emissions, or scope 3 emissions.

Scope 3 emissions 

These derive from supply chains and the consumption and disposal of materials. They are the largest source of emissions from most commercial activities, including laboratory research. For example, they constitute 62 per cent of the NHS’s carbon footprint.

Currently, scope 3 emissions are based on financial spend. This is not a perfect measure, but it shows the size of the challenge. Knowing more about scope 3 emissions would help identify areas of constraint and opportunity for sustainable procurement and practice. 

Best estimates are sobering. The Sustainable Healthcare Coalition, an alliance of providers, says that worldwide, clinical science could be responsible for the equivalent of 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. This is based on calculations that research accounts for about 5 per cent of total healthcare spending, and that as a whole, healthcare emits the equivalent of 2 billion tonnes of CO2 each year, 4.4 per cent of the global total.

If clinical science were a country, it would rank 40th in the world, above Nigeria and Bangladesh, each of which has
more than 100m people. Per capita, the world’s 8.8m scientists have a far greater impact on the environment than the average person. 

The UK effort

For the UK, this poses the question of reconciling the government’s vision of a research superpower, which involves more R&D spending and personnel, with its goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The answer requires coordinated action from institutions, industry and policymakers. 

Institutions must equip facilities and researchers to make sustainable practice a reality. Researchers should be taught to make better choices: setting an ultra-low temperature freezer to -70C instead of -80C, for example, reduces its energy consumption by 30 per cent. Retrofitting autoclaves can cut their water use by up to 90 per cent. Out-of-hours settings for energy-hungry science buildings can slash consumption by heating and ventilation. The money saved can help to pay for greener electricity sources and energy-saving initiatives.

Suppliers who are developing more environmentally friendly products and services, such as taking back packaging or used products, should also be rewarded, such as the solvent bottle reuse programmes provided by VWR and Fisher, reloadable boxes for pipette tips, and New England Biolabs’ packaging reuse scheme. A circular economy for most laboratory consumables, diverting materials from incineration and landfill, should be possible.

Incentives required

Scientists need incentives to take the extra time required for sustainable practices. Since 2005, for example, Harvard University has run a Shut the Sash competition to encourage labs to reduce energy use by fume hoods, rewarding successful groups with pizza and parties. 

This is where policymakers have most to contribute. Funders have the power to change the face of research simply by supporting applicants who show awareness of lab sustainability, or providing ring-fenced funding for energy-saving retrofits. In future, as carbon accounting becomes widespread, perhaps grants will come with carbon budgets.

As the scientific community continues to grow, we look forward to working with colleagues to find solutions to the global climate crisis. We also hope to address the growing impacts of the community itself in a sustainable manner. Good research shouldn’t cost the earth.

Madeleine Luck is a Churchill fellow working on research sustainability. Martin Farley is the sustainable research manager at UCL.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version appeared in Research Europe