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Fossil ties in the new academic year: research with responsibility

The opening of the academic year by Universiteit Leiden on the 4th of September 2023 was all about the climate crisis and sustainability – with the president of the Executive Board beginning her opening speech by referring to the impactful talk she just had with Extinction Rebellion activists outside. Scientists For Future, Scientist Rebellion, and End Fossil activists presented their views during the ceremony.

How different was the opening of the academic year at the Technical University Eindhoven, where the theme was ‘Future earning power of the Netherlands and Europe’. The president of the Executive Board said in an interview to De Telegraaf: “Then we can say later: ‘we have reached the climate goals, but we sadly do not have a manufacturing industry anymore’.” Master student Sustainable Energy Technology Bram Boer proposed in an opinion piece: “What if we turn it around? Then we can say later: “We have an excellent manufacturing industry, but sadly we have lost most of life on earth.”

What will the next academic year have in store regarding universities’ fossil ties? Last year, a string of universities took decisions on whether to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry. The VU was first in April, a few months later, at the end of a series of discussions and debates open to students and staff, Universiteit van Amsterdam and Universiteit Utrecht published their decisions. At Maastricht University, who also made a statement, these discussions will start in the new academic year.

Opening of the academic year in Leiden

‘Universities lend legitimacy’

A key argument of those campaigning for cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry is that working with fossil fuel companies – conducting research for and with them, allowing them at careers fairs – lends them legitimacy (a social licence to operate) in the eyes of the public. This legitimacy is undeserved, campaigners argue, because such companies mislead the public and world leaders about their climate ambitions, delaying real climate action at a time when the window of opportunity for staying under 1.5°`C warming is rapidly closing. Many such companies are also involved in human rights abuses. Having these companies on campus – campaigners say – shows tacit approval of this and allows these companies to present a one-sided story to students. 

‘Commitment to Paris Agreement is key’

Based on this or similar reasoning, two universities have decided to cut ties with fossil fuel companies which do not commit to the objectives of the Paris agreement. The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam) qualifies this with “in the short term”, which appears to exclude all major companies which continue prospecting for coal, oil or gas: a broad consensus of independent research finds that opening new oil and gas fields are incompatible with Paris goalsUtrecht University includes organisations as well as companies (possibly including lobby groups like Element NL , or research institutions such as IFP Energies nouvelles ), and requires them to be “intensively and demonstrably committed to accelerating the energy transition” – a definition to be further worked out in collaboration with staff and students.

‘No fossil collaborations, except…’

University of Amsterdam also issued a statement. Although declaring “we will not accept sponsorship from Shell or other companies from the fossil fuel industry”, they also outline the conditions under which they would work together with them: that the project works towards the energy transition, and that the research could otherwise not be carried out. This is a significantly smaller break with the status quo for three reasons. 

In the first instance, even projects that on the surface seem to work towards the energy transition may serve a fossil fuel agenda. For example, research at Delft University of Technology investigated renewable energy methods such as floating wind turbines and wave energy converters – for use in offshore oil drilling.

The condition that cooperation is acceptable if research could otherwise not be carried out is also a double-edged sword. While situations can arise where this could be useful (e.g. access to windfarm data – several fossil companies also own windfarms) it also allows systematic influence of fossil fuel companies: such companies can make resources, data or equipment available for research that aligns with, or is least disruptive to, their corporate strategy – skewing the body of research towards these technologies. An example of such technologies is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): a much higher percentage of funding comes from oil and gas companies than other “green” technologies – and this is logical. CCS can allow companies to make the argument to continue operations as usual. In many cases, for example electricity generation, the business case for CCS doesn’t stand up against renewable alternatives. (International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA))

Non-financial collaborations also need attention

Finally, UvA may choose not to accept money from fossil fuel companies. However, a lot of ties between universities and fossil fuel companies are not in the form of donations or direct funding. For example, executives of ExxonMobil and bp are in the Sustainable Industry Lab , working on “academic and policy papers” alongside academics from Eindhoven University of TechnologyRadboud University , MU, UvA and UU. Another example is in-kind contributions: UU has three agreements for the loan of equipment from fossil fuel organisations, according to their transparency report. Such in-kind contributions are as much of a research collaboration as direct funding, and under the UU’s new rules, it looks likely that this would not be allowed (whether continued work in the Sustainable Industry Lab would also count as a research collaboration is not 100% clear).

Need for clear collaboration criteria

Maastricht’s statement states that they are “open to cooperation with parties that are actively working on transitioning, but are still part of the fossil fuel system, especially if no alternatives are available”. Here it will be interesting to see how the university determines who is and is not working on transitioning. Does a capital expenditure of 1.5% on renewables count? And what does it mean, if no alternatives are available?

They also state that “acutely stopping the use of fossil fuels, for example, would collapse our entire food and healthcare systems, among other things. Phasing out is a process of years, even decades.” This is irrelevant to the discussion around working with the fossil industry: cutting ties with fossil fuel companies will not directly impact use of fossil fuels, but campaigners hope that it will affect these companies’ legitimacy in the eyes of the public (social licence to operate) and ability to present a one-sided story to students. 

More discussions (and action?) ahead

However, the publication of a statement announcing a dialogue and intention to act on it signals a commitment from MU to engage with this topic. In the new academic year, while Maastricht conducts its dialogue, almost every university in the Netherlands will be doing the same: Leiden University has recently published its ties with the fossil industry ahead of an open debate on 27 September. With student and staff – and therefore action groups – now back from holidays, 2023-2024 promises to be a year of much soul-searching for the Dutch academic world. 

Let us know what you expect via LinkedIn.