By Valentina Borghesani, Elvisha Dhamala, Niall Duncan, Marie-Eve Hoeppli, and Michele Veldsman, on behalf of the SEA-SIG
This month, OHBM announced the formation of a new Special Interest Group that will tackle sustainability and environmental issues around brain imaging.
Here, we talk with the Sustainability & Environment Action (SEA) SIG Chair Charlotte Rae to hear more about what the new SIG will seek to achieve.
Why do we need a new Sustainability & Environment SIG?
Awareness of the environmental impact of human activity has never been higher, and there is now strong international consensus that we urgently need rapid action to tackle multiple crises, including dangerous climate change and irreversible ecosystem degradation. Neuroimaging research activity plays a part in these crises - from liquid helium extracted through fossil fuel production, to the energy usage of big data. We all have a responsibility - especially as professional scientists - to address these issues and move towards a sustainable future.
We have set up the new SIG so that we can have a community conversation around how to enact the changes that are required. For example, we plan to do some work around measuring and assessing what the environmental impact of a neuroimaging workflow is, from data acquisition to data analysis and even publication. One back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the carbon footprint of a single MRI scan session at 160kg, and we know that server activity has a big impact - especially resource hungry approaches such as machine learning. Once we’ve quantified the size of the problem, we aim to provide a set of guidelines and recommendations for sustainable neuroimaging practises.
We are also really keen to work together with Council, the Executive Office, and colleagues across our community to decarbonise the annual meeting. There is growing recognition that 3000 of us flying across the globe annually isn’t compatible with a safe future on this planet: one transatlantic return trip generates nearly 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. That’s the size of our annual individual personal ‘carbon budget’ if we’re going to limit warming to the 1.5C set by the Paris Climate agreement. We need to work up positive and practical alternatives that the whole of our neuroimaging community can get on board with, whether that’s ‘hub-and-spoke’ models, where you meet colleagues locally on your own continent, supporting hybrid in-person and online interactions, or reducing meeting frequency.
We have a lot of work to do! But our sister SIGs have shown that with international collaboration across our brain imaging community, we can achieve rapid change. The Open Science SIG has changed the way we think about open neuroimaging. The Diversity and Inclusivity Committee, set up in 2016, now has a dedicated symposium slot at every annual meeting. As has already happened for open science and inclusivity, we can aspire to drive rapid uptake of sustainability awareness and action amongst our community too.
How can OHBM members get involved?
We plan to hold regular open SIG ‘community meetings’ where any OHBM member can share their thoughts on what our priority actions should be for the SIG to take forward. This might be decarbonising the annual meeting - such as building on the 2020 and 2021 digital meetings to ensure we don’t simply return to 3000 members creating a huge travel footprint every June post-COVID. Or tackling the question of big data - how can we run our analyses sustainably when server manufacture has a huge ecological impact, and energy to perform computations often still comes from fossil fuels?
Once we know our priorities for action, we want to establish SEA-SIG working groups so that we don’t just ‘talk the talk’ about what the problems are, but ‘walk the walk’ to figure out what the changes are that need to happen. Ultimately, we want to be able to produce some guidance as to how neuroimagers can go about greening our research practises. We need OHBM members with expertise across MRI physics, computing, analysis practises, to all get involved!
It's also crucial that we have lots of input from early career researchers. Our current generation of trainees are going to have to live with the consequences of dangerous climate change for much of their lives - it is already happening, and is only going to get worse. We hope we can amplify the voices of ECRs, who we know often feel very strongly that rapid urgent action is necessary, but who are not always heeded by those in power.
If you would like to get involved with any of our activities or receive updates about what we’ve been doing then contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are also most welcome to come to our first community meeting, on Tuesday, 15th December via Zoom (with two sessions: 09.00 UTC and 18.00 UTC, to accommodate colleagues in different timezones). We will outline what the climate crisis and ecological emergency mean for us as neuroimagers, before we collaborate in small groups to determine priority aims for the SIG to pursue. Register to attend here: https://forms.gle/vVF3ydnJCyArobdj6
We are also looking for colleagues to join our Committee, in the posts of Webmaster, and Social Media officer. Please contact us on email@example.com if you are interested in taking on either of these roles.
Finally, you can follow us on Twitter, @OhbmEnvironment.
We hope to see you at a SEA-SIG community meeting soon!