Martin Farley, Europe’s first full-time sustainable laboratory specialist, highlights the challenges and opportunities in the quest to reduce the climate impact of laboratories.
What motivated you to push for the sustainable transformation of scientific labs? Why did you focus on this particular niche?
I worked and studied in labs in the US and Netherlands. During my time in these labs, I couldn’t help but notice the volume of plastic that I was using, particularly for tissue culturing (a research technique that involves growing animal or plant cells/tissues on an artificial medium outside the parent organism), and I wondered if anyone was doing anything about the sustainability of science.
Sustainability as a topic of research and discussion will only grow, so I thought, “why not consider it in laboratories also?” It turns out that science facilities, while niche, are quite resource intensive with many opportunities for sustainability wins.
Tell us a little bit about how you developed, and currently manage, UCL’s LEAF Programme. Was this an initiative that came from you? What barriers were the most challenging to overcome in the process of setting up the programme?
While I initiated the programme, the support from UCL has been crucial to LEAF’s creation, particularly support from Joanna Marshall-Cook, Aaron Kashab, Vindya Dassanayake, Richard Jackson, and Ciaran Jebb, to name a few. Beyond the expected challenges one encounters when developing a new initiative, such as time, creating a website, or building engagement, I’m not sure there have been many that are notable.
Both the scientific and sustainability communities have been hugely supportive of this effort, and LEAF has grown thanks to that support. I should add that we still have more to develop, and we need to find the best ways to expand LEAF’s remit while maintaining impact.
In a Nature article, you mention that the LEAF framework was developed to set shared standards for sustainable laboratories. Can this framework be applied across disciplines and geographical boundaries (we noticed that most of the signatories are in the UK)?
While the majority of institutions that have signed up are from the UK, LEAF is in use in 14 countries now, including two institutions in Australia. This framework certainly can be applied beyond the UK. We’re also developing some new versions of LEAF for more specialist environments, which should be ready in early 2023 for participating institutions.
The work that we’ve done has shown that there’s a lot of people working in specialist environments seeking guidance on how to be more sustainable.
You also advocate for more stringent, mandatory “sustainability requirements” analogous to those for occupational safety. What could that look like?
There’s much scope for discussion on what this would look like, but I like the health and safety model – having common, accessible standards that operations may be assessed against.
Such standards in the sustainability space should be supported by academic institutions, funders, and commercial operations. We could also include sustainability and efficiency requirements, as we do with health and safety requirements, in the building and refurbishment of science facilities.
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