Another day in the lab, another trashcan full of disposable plastic. Especially on days when experiments don’t work, this hidden cost of doing scientific research becomes particularly frustrating. As neuroscientists, we sometimes wonder: is it worth it to try to uncover the secrets of the brain, if we destroy the planet in the process?
Serious efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our research may ease our own consciences, renew our commitment to our research, as well as making a real difference in our resource consumption, a win-win-win. In our recent Comment published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, we took a data-driven approach, with the help of Quentin Gilly from the Harvard Green Labs program, to review the literature and come up with a list of recommendations for labs (focusing on neuroscience labs, but generalizable to labs in many areas of biology) to limit their environmental impact. Our suggestions range from options that are easy and have no impact on research output such as shutting fume hood sashes when they are not in use to efforts that require more commitment, such as purchasing plastics specifically from vendors that offer recycling programs and utilizing those programs to reduce plastic waste.
Although we initially agreed to write the piece before the COVID-19 shutdown, our current efforts to maintain research productivity at home have allowed us to reflect on which parts of the process are necessary and which are truly optional, especially with regards to travel. We foresee a future in which many meetings, conferences, and thesis defenses can continue to happen remotely, or with a remote option, to facilitate global collaborations without requiring frequent long-distance travel. Of course, in-person work within our labs must restart when the university reopens. Given predicted disruptions in supply chains and the fact that many experiments have been on hold for months, this might be an excellent time for labs to reevaluate the environmental friendliness of their suppliers, their methods for inventorying supplies and preventing unnecessary waste, and their lab culture around environmental impact. Our own lab is just at the start of this process, and other labs in MCB and the wider Harvard community may be farther along, so we urge everyone to share strategies and contribute to this important effort.