Skip to content

‘University does have a moral compass and it rejects collaboration with ‘fossil”

Translated with Deepl, apologies for any mistakes

Opinion in the Volkskrant by Mark Boode (co-founder Teachers for Climate), Linda Knoester (co-founder Solid Sustainability), Maien Sachisthal (postdoc in Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam), Arjen Markus (water quality expert at Deltares), Dirk Hilbers (biologist/ethicist and teaches at the University of Amsterdam) and Klaas Landsman (professor of Mathematical Physics at Radboud University).

15 February 2024 | Cooperation with the oil industry is not a free issue for universities: they are bound by the Dutch Code of Conduct on Scientific Integrity, the binding moral compass.

In a recent contribution, a group of academics (Jouke Dykstra, Sascha Kersten, Bas van Bommel, Erik Faber and Mark Voorendt, also known as the Teachers’ Collective) take on the fossil industry. It argues that a university “should not apply and impose its own moral compass in terms of cooperation with companies”. The message: collaboration with companies like Shell is actually desirable.

We do not here now go into what we consider to be fallacies and distortions in their piece. We argue that Dutch universities have long been committed to a moral compass, which also applies to collaborations with external partners. Universities are constantly making choices: about research directions, the content of educational programmes and about cooperation partners.

These choices flow from the (sometimes implicit) values that universities and policymakers hold. If we fail to recognise these choices and values, the whim of the day or available funding may determine what universities do. However, the binding moral compass is the Dutch Code of Conduct on Scientific Integrity, which has been signed by all Dutch universities and is regularly updated based on new knowledge and evolving insights (the current version is from 2018).

The principles of the code of conduct are ‘honesty, diligence, transparency, independence and responsibility’. The code requires scientists to be society-oriented, society-serving and that research should not be determined by extra-scientific interests, arguments or preferences, such as commercial or political interests.

University research must also take into account the interests of (test) persons, (test) animals and the living environment. Research assignments should only be accepted if they can be carried out according to these standards. Although cooperation partners of Dutch universities are not formally bound by this Code of Conduct, the code does state that ‘the principles of this code should be guiding for them as well’.


What about the fossil industry? On 8 February, Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, argued crystal clear during a lecture at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, that fossil companies – her own research was about ExxonMobil – have been spreading disinformation for decades, knowing the harmful effects of their products. This is also evident from documents provided by the US state of California in a lawsuit against the fossil industry last year. This issue was one of the reasons why Boerhaave too decided to stop working with Shell in 2021.

Oreskes’ earlier work dealt with the tactics of tobacco companies when science showed that their products were deadly. The problem was denied and downplayed. The government would deprive consumers of their freedom of choice (as if addiction were a form of freedom). And the wealthy tobacco industry enlisted scientists to abuse their credibility.

Meanwhile, the debate around the tobacco industry has died down: no Dutch university, let alone a university medical centre, would now accept money from a tobacco manufacturer. The risks as well as the hypocrisy of cooperating with an industry that for years conducted disinformation campaigns and thwarted policies designed to protect citizens’ health are too great. Even if the money could be put to good use for cancer research, for example.


So it is with the energy transition, but even without deliberate disinformation campaigns, there are weighty reasons for universities not to engage with the fossil industry. The IPCC reports, result of the largest longitudinal global scientific study ever, unreservedly conclude that we must commit to a sustainable transition as soon as possible. Those who take science seriously deploy all available research capacity to achieve that sustainable transition and do not let this capacity be hijacked by companies with opposing interests.

Moreover, CEO’s of such companies repeatedly stressed last year that they are determined (Shell even: ‘ruthless’) to remain focused on maximum exploitation and production of fossil fuels. After all, there is no optimal deadline to phase out fossil, climate change is already causing enormous damage to biodiversity, food security and habitability in large parts of the world.

Besides the social and ecological urgency to mitigate climate change as soon as possible, the Code of Conduct also makes cooperation between universities and the fossil industry no longer defensible, in our opinion.