Published: 22 April 2024

Research has a high impact on the environment. Laboratory research uses significant amounts of water, an average of 5-10 times more energy per m2 than standard office spaces, and it is responsible for almost 2% of global plastic waste.  

All organisations across the R&D system can play a role in reducing emissions and making research more sustainable. Coordinated effort is needed to ensure environmentally sustainable practices are adopted at scale. 

As funders, medical research charities can support the research system to become more sustainable by prioritising some of the following actions.

Sign up to the Concordat for the Environmental Sustainability of Research and Innovation Practice as a signatory or supporter

  • This includes a series of commitments on immediate and consistent action, including by funders, to reduce the environmental impacts of research.
  • To be a signatory, organisations must commit to action and monitoring. Recognising that some organisations aren’t yet at this stage, there is a ‘supporter’ category for those earlier on in the journey, who still support the aims and ambitions of the concordat. View the concordat here.

Ask the researchers/research organisations you fund to adopt sustainable practices

  • Require the researchers or research organisations you fund to have sustainable research certification or accreditation, such as the UCL Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF).
  • Switch off equipment and lights when not in use.
  • Set freezers to –70°C instead of –80°C. Recent research shows that this reduces energy consumption by 30-40% without compromising research quality. 

Ask the researchers/research organisations you fund to take action to reduce, reuse and recycle within laboratories

  • Reuse lab equipment where possible or use green options e.g. ‘biobased’ tubes.  
  • Reduce the use of single-use plastics without impacting research quality. 
  • Include recycling bins within the lab and participate in ‘take-back’ schemes, where materials are returned to suppliers for reuse. 
  • Centralise facilities and share resources where possible e.g. centralising washing and autoclave facilities. 

Transport and events 

  • Carry out, where possible, remote committee meetings. 
  • Avoid flying and travel, where possible, via public transport. Provide funding to reimburse those that use sustainable modes of transport.  
  • At events, use 100% tap water (not bottled), and switch to seasonal, vegetable-based meal plans using local produce.  

Procurement

  • Require all organisations you contract with or fund to commit to an absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 45% by 2030.   
  • Ask research organisations to require the companies they contract with to commit to an absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 45% by 2030.

Further details and recommendations can be found in LEAF materials, as well as a RAND Europe report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust. This details a range of initiatives, including networks, guidelines, and measurement tools. that support sustainable research. It also outlines training, certification, and funder-led schemes for investing in sustainable research and sustainable service provision. 

Recommendations for reducing the carbon footprint of clinical research can be found in the National Institute for Health and Care Research’s Carbon Reduction Guidelines.

Cancer Research UK's policy for researchers and research institutes is a good example of how charities can incorporate sustainability actions into their funding requirements.

Click on the boxes below to view our other environmental sustainability pages.