Should mining money fund sustainability research? The UCL and BHP Billiton, Part II

University College London likes to brand itself as London’s Global University. They’re understandably keen to emphasize the international scope of their work — that they garner staff, students and intellectual attention from all over the world.

So it’s a bit embarrassing to see the corridors plastered with adverts for an anti-fossil fuel student society subverting the motto for London’s Global ~ WARMING ~ University, hoping to highlight the institution’s multiple relationships with the fossil fuel industry.

It’s perhaps especially embarrassing as one of the areas UCL attracts so much attention for is their expertise on climate change. A recent paper from Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins of their Institute for Sustainable Resources, for example, drew headlines around the world for its stamens on how much of our oil, gas and coal reserves must remain unburnt if global warming is to stay below 2°C.

It’s embarrassing, but is it a problem? Earlier today, we published an interview with UCL’s Vice Provost for Research, David Price, who defended the deal with Billiton. Now we have an interview with another UCL academic who’s slightly more sceptical.

Jane Rendell first became interested in the issue of BHP Billiton’s sponsorship of UCL’s Institute of Sustainable Resources when, as Vice Dean of Research for UCL’s Faculty for the Built Environment, she was asked to consider the risks of research expansion. Part of this involved considering whether using funds from donations or sponsorship could pose risks.

“For me, as someone who comes out of the humanities, because I see knowledge as socially constructed, and therefore vulnerable to bias, I was concerned about how a mining company could be funding research into sustainability.”

“It struck me that it was a potential conflict of interest. And if UCL’s brand is one of academic independence then it could be somehow threatened by this relationship.”

“I think the risk to academic reputation works on a number of different levels. Obviously one is at risk of being seen to do research that isn’t independent. But I think the ISR and the Energy Institute are working hard to ensure that they are doing independent research.”

The opposite could be true of course too, she adds — “But if you don’t work with industry, you could be seen as an ivory tower academic.” It’s hard to be critical of any funding in the current climate.

Accepting money from a company which makes at least some of its money from fossil fuel extraction feels like a very particular case in terms of academic/ industry relationships. Rendell echoes the oft-made comparison of taking tobacco money to fund cancer research, and adds a point about the generational politics of the university:

“The other issue is that a university is there to train future generations. We shouldn’t be burning any more fossil fuel, because that is going to affect future generations negatively. So as an academic, I have an ethical responsibility to that younger generation, which makes accepting money from a fossil fuel company an issue of inter-generational equity.”

She started asking questions. She was assured the relationship had been checked and thought through, but it was a decision that had already been made at the top of the institution. “There might have been full consultation, but I wasn’t involved.”

“I was told that the decision to take the funding had gone through all the right processes within UCL — due diligence processes — and that there was a partnership agreement written that ensured the protection of the independence of academic research. But I didn’t get to see all of these documents.”

Like many elite intuitions, the governance of UCL is reasonably top-heavy. We might think of science as a relatively egalitarian, co-operative process. In many ways, it is. But it’s often managed through rather tight hierarchies and decisions about funding are far from open.

With divestment from fossil fuels a hot topic on university campuses the world over, questions are increasingly being asked about how the fossil fuel industry invests in universities, as well as the other way around. These relatively closed hierarchies are being challenged.

When Glasgow became the first university in Europe to vote to divest from fossil fuels, a small group of geologists and engineers responded angrily that it was ‘vacuous posturing’ which might ‘jeopardise the university’s credibility.’ Campaigners responded that this criticism missed the point — who is doing the vacuous posturing exactly — inviting the academy to re-think the nature of its relationship with the extractive industries.

We’ve seen protests in Oxford over their Shell Geoscience Laboratory, and concerns about the Natural Environment Research Council signing a memorandum of understanding with Shell. Anti-Oil NGO Platform’s 2013 report, Knowledge and Power drew attention to a range of ways in which universities supported the fossil fuel industry, way and above investment — from training staff to the awarding of honours, membership of boards and sponsored research.

Back to UCL, and their deal with Billiton. According to Rendell, the broader reaction within staff seemed mixed. That’s a genuine mix, not a euphemism for bad.

“Some people responded the way I did, which was to be surprised at the idea that you could do independent research with that kind of funding, but other people felt that the way to influence the fossil fuel industry was to work with them to become more sustainable, in order to have ‘real world impact’. Others have been more ambivalent, but felt that this offered PhD students opportunities to do research that might not otherwise happen. There’s also the view that it doesn’t really matter where the money comes from, it’s what you do with it that counts.”

Rendell’s keen to stress that she doesn’t think that engagement with industry is a bad thing. “I think it’s a good thing, especially in the built environment, you have to have relations with industry, but it depends on the kind of relation.”

There’s a difference between working with industry, and taking money from them.

“Let’s get our models for funding sustainable research right,” Rendell argues. “Ideally I would like to see tax justice, and research funded from the public purse. However, in the current climate, and coming out of the situated knowledge position, I would like to see a diverse range of sources funding research to avoid excessive bias in one direction. And if a source of funding is derived from a core business that has caused the very problem that is being researched, it would have to be excluded.”

The idea of diverse funders is similar to the system that’s applied by the Science Media Centre, which deliberately caps donations and keeps funders diverse. However, these sorts of models — especially at the scale of a university — can leave out the agenda of those without enough money to purchase a stake. The idea might work in a equal system where everyone has similar funds to invest in science. But we don’t live in an equal system. Indeed, part of what the Go Fossil Free campaigners are fighting against is what they see as disproportionate power held by the extractive industries.

As for work such as the McGlade and Ekins paper possibly embarrassing Billiton, she doubts that’s a problem. Papers rarely bring down multi-nationals. Industry doesn’t just fund science to generate research, but also because of the cultural associations it offers — the so-called ‘social license to operate’.

“I think this a very subtle area… With the publication of this new paper, Billiton could, by its association with UCL, now be linked to the idea of leaving coal in the ground [even if they don’t act to that end].”

Perhaps it is campaigners touting this paper around who should be so embarrassed, and careful, not UCL. It’s a slippery area though, and hard to tell.

“That’s why we need to do research into the nature and effect of these relationships.” If the argument is that universities are able to change the extractive industries, and make them more sustainable “Well, let’s measure that! Let’s do some research and get some evidence as to how much these industries are changing. Are they becoming more sustainable because of their relationship with universities? I think that would be a great research project to do.”

She also feels we need more training for academics. Some are highly experienced when it comes to working with industry — especially the extractive industries — and arguably they have a lot to teach their colleagues. But equally those with less hands-on experience may also be able to provide questions, advice, ideas and new ways to consider such relationships. There’s space for a lot of productive cross-disciplinary learning here. Moreover, Rendell argues, we should embrace the power of disagreement, and relish the university as diverse spaces, often full of argument:

“You can’t often have a situation of complete consensus, you will usually have disagreement, and that’s an interesting place to be. There is great work in philosophy on dissensus, or agonism, and that could be really useful for informing what’s happening in universities at the moment.”

Rendell ended up resigning the Vice Dean post over the issue. But, overall, she seems reasonably optimistic — optimistic about the role of the academy in general and UCL in particular.

“I found this whole period quite stressful, nothing like this has happened to me before… But it’s been nice to see positive new things being done” she adds, mentioning a new ethics working group, and new research ethics funding committee.

“I found the period directly after I stood down from my role one of isolation really. I felt fearful, but thanks to some really supportive colleagues and friends I’ve now moved into another phase which is much more about working with people again and talking to people about their different views. And the more that the conversation can be had in public, the better.”

Written by . Published on February 11, 2015. Last edited on March 4, 2015.

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