Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Theoretical Computer Science for the Future

Guest post by the TCS4F initiative (Antoine Amarilli, Thomas Colcombet, Hugo Férée, Thomas Schwentick) 

TCS4F is an initiative by theoretical computer scientists who are concerned about that other major crisis of our time: climate change. We anticipate that the climate crisis will be a major challenge of the decades to come, that it will require major changes at all levels of society to mitigate the harm that it will cause, and that researchers in theoretical computer science, like all other actors, must be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Our initiative is to propose a manifesto to commit to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions: following IPCC goals, the objective is to reduce by at least 50% before 2030 relative to pre-2020 levels. The manifesto is more than a simple expression of concern, because it is a pledge with concrete objectives. However, it does not prescribe specific measures, as we believe this discussion is not settled yet and the right steps to take can vary depending on everyone's practices. 

The manifesto can be signed by individual researchers (like you, dear reader!), by research groups, and by organizers of conferences and workshops. Currently, over 50 researchers have signed it. The goal of TCS4F is also to start organizing a community of concerned researchers, across theoretical computer science, to think about the issue of climate change and how to adjust what we do, in particular our travel habits. 

We need your help to make this initiative a success and help theoretical CS lead the way towards a sustainable, carbon-neutral future:
  • If you agree with our concerns and are ready to commit to reducing your carbon footprint, consider signing the manifesto. Signing is open to all researchers in theoretical CS in the broadest possible sense.
  • Advertise your support of the manifesto (e.g., by putting one of our badges on your webpage). Talk in your research teams and departments about the manifesto, and see if you can gather support for signing the manifesto collectively as a research group.
  • If you are involved in conferences and workshops, start a discussion about the carbon footprint of the event, and whether the event could commit to the manifesto's goal. Indeed, now that conferences across the globe are moving online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a good time to discuss how conferences could evolve towards more sustainable models.
  • Spread the word about the issue of climate change and the TCS4F initiative, and encourage discussion of this important challenge in our communities. 
As theoretical researchers, we are not used to discussing uncomfortable non-scientific questions like the effects of our activities on the world. However, we believe that the magnitude of the climate crisis obliges us to act now as a community. We are confident that great changes can be achieved if we do not limit our creativity to our specific research areas and also use it to re-think our way to do research.


  1. While this statement is extremely vague, since it very well looks like the authors have no idea how the TCS community, or any community whatsoever, would tackle climate change, they do (more or less) clearly suggest a single fact: traveling to conferences.

    If it makes you happy, the current crisis will transform business travel forever. At least for a while, people will have a good excuse to not travel across continents 6 times a year (This year's ICLR was supposed to be in Ethiopia, thank goodness we don't have to travel there now). Not that I know anyone who enjoys doing so, but at least this year we are exempt from all that tedious money spending.

    Maybe one should have also thought of whether it is okay to use public money from grants to participate in such wasteful events. Too bad the only thing that stirs you is this singular issue.

    Maybe you should organize a committee, and have a few meetings. And out of this, eventually you might write a paper on the computational complexity of climate. And then, you will finally get to be a good person ;)

  2. Of course, travel has a carbon footprint. So does every other travel that people do. I don't see exhortations for people to stop traveling for vacations.

    These calls which have become quite frequent and completely miss the purpose of a conference or a workshop: to create a sense of community.

    Perhaps an extreme analogy, but conferences/workshops serve as 'support groups' (may be colocate with AA next time ...) for our fields. You know, the kind where everyone raises their hand and says 'Hi, I'm a theoretical computer scientist and here's my story ...'. The support and motivation these conferences provide has not been quantified. This is particularly true for 'smaller' places (e.g., any place outside the top 10 theory places) which do not have too many researchers or students. The students pretty much talk to their advisor and that's it.

    My point being, don't just say there is a carbon footprint and we can have the conference online. This does not make a difference for the people who are well known or have a critical mass of research already in their neighborhoods.

    Really think how this effects researchers and especially students who are outside the top ten universities and their exposure to others.

  3. I'd be curious to know how the travel footprints of computer scientists (theoretical or otherwise) compares to those from other scientific fields. In CS we have this strange system which often forces us to buy a plane ticket in order to publish a result. But other fields also have conferences, more often of the "community building" kind mentioned by Anonymous at 11:15am.