While initiatives such as the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF) are making progress on improving the sustainability of laboratory-based research, the carbon footprint of high-performance and cloud computing remains a growing concern.

Published in Nature Computational Science, researchers at the University of Cambridge have put forward GREENER principles (Governance, Responsibility, Estimation, Energy and embodied impacts, New collaborations, Education and Research) that push for sustainable research practices to maximise computational science’s benefit to both humanity and the environment.

Dr Loïc Lannelongue, lead author of the research, said: “Science has transformed our understanding of the world around us and has led to great benefits to society. But this has come with a not-insignificant – and not always well-understood – impact on the environment.

Computational scientists have a real opportunity to lead the way in sustainability, but this is going to involve a change in our culture and the ways we work. Cooperation, open science, and equitable access to low-carbon computing facilities will also be crucial.”

With the greenhouse emissions from Information and Communication Technologies sector currently on par with the aviation industry, this works highlights the need for the scientific community to act now as data science and algorithms increase in usage.

Professor Michael Inouye, Systems Genomics and Population Health at the University of Cambridge, said: “While the environmental impact of experimental ‘wet’ labs is more immediately obvious, the impact of algorithms is less clear and often underestimated.

“While new hardware, lower-energy data centres and more efficient high performance computing systems can help reduce their impact, the increasing ubiquity of artificial intelligence and data science more generally means their carbon footprint could grow exponentially in coming years if we don’t act now.”

The research was a collaboration with major stakeholders including HDR UK, EMBL-EBI, Wellcome and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Visit the Green Algorithms project website for a carbon footprint calculator.