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Balancing the Environmental Costs and Benefits of Research

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay, Maine, recently moved into a new $30 million LEED-platinum certified campus.
Heather Goldstone

Like everything, scientific research comes with environmental impacts - from energy-demanding labs to abandoned spacecraft. Is what we learn worth it?

The news on the environmental front can be rather grim – accelerating climate change, species going extinct at an unprecedented rate, water made undrinkable by human activities. I could go on, but won’t. The point is this: The way we know how humans are affecting the natural world is through science. And yet, ironically, scientific research takes its own toll on the environment.

Laboratories can use three to four times as much electricity as an office space. The bulk of that actually goes to air handling - ventilation and climate control. But there are also the freezers, computers, and high-end electronic equipment, not to mention the mundane but essential lighting. And then there are the impacts of travel, lost field equipment, and disposable plasticware.

It's hard to put a number on the environmental impact of research activities, cumulatively or individually. There's been relatively little research into the issue, and research endeavors are so highly specialized that lessons learned from one lab or project may not apply to others.

Still, an increasing number of institutions are making efforts to reduce their environmental footprint and ensure that the benefits of science outweigh the environmental costs. In fact, some scientists hope their efforts can set an example for the commercial sector and instill trust and respect in the public they serve.

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