Does the end justify the means? The UCL/BHP Billiton Institute for Sustainable Resources

David Price is Vice-Provost for Research at University College London (UCL), but he’s also an Earth Scientist. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He knows and cares about the ground and things that we might take out of it, how we do that extracting, who’d do it, and why.

He’s trained generations of scientists to work in the extractive industries. More recently, has been a key player in a deal with the Anglo-Australian multinational mining company, BHP Billiton who, in 2011, gave UCL $10 million to establish an Institute for Sustainable Resources in London and an International Energy Policy Institute at UCL’s Australian campus in Adelaide.

It’s a deal that’s attracted some criticism. As one of UCL’s scientists, Simon Lewis, told the Guardian “It sounds like the environmental equivalent of a tobacco company sponsoring an Institute for Cancer Research.”

But Price stands by the deal, and spoke to us to offer some background on the story. We’re also going to publish an interview with another academic from UCL — who holds slightly different views — later today. With ‘Go Fossil Free’ campaigning increasingly looking at the money the extractive industries invest in universities, as well as the other way around, the complexities of this debate are ones many will recognise. It’s an interesting case study in the new challenges for science/ industry relationships.

“The question that a university like UCL needs to address is how is it that we as a global civilisation, if I can call it that, can reach the 22nd century in a smooth trajectory” Price tells me. “There are lots of dystopic solutions that you might imagine… My two children certainly tell me they’d not like to see a dystopic Blade Runner society happening in fifty or sixty years time.”

Price is keen that UCL should explore the so-called Grand Challenges — big topics like energy, water, food, disease — and do so in an interdisciplinary way. This language of Grand Challenges might sound rather grandiose, but it’s all the rage in science policy these days. Price is not alone in using it. Indeed, if he didn’t, he’d be seen as dragging UCL’s heels.

But money is tight to do all this visionary work. Especially if you want to build something new. Levels of public funding of science in the UK are not bad compared to many other countries, but they are still limited, and UCL has larger ambitions. Which is why, having already established an Energy Institute and a Centre for Biodiversity and Ecology, they jumped at the chance of support from Billiton.

Price is clearly proud of the work it’s achieved already. Eager to show off the PhD students in particular, he pushes a bit of paper printed out from their website across the table at me.

“These are the PhD studentships which have been funded. They are exciting! And I know Paul Ekins has now used the money that came from Billiton to leverage a lot of additional funding.”

He also underlines that the deal was “a philanthropic donation. Which is terrific. Because it comes without strings. And that’s the essential element. It’s only acceptable if it comes without strings.”

No strings is easy to say, but reality can be murkier. “There is philanthropy and philanthropy” Price agrees, but compares this with organisations such as Wellcome which may give philanthropic money with a set of requirements because they want to strategically act to change science (e.g. on open access). This isn’t the case here: “I don’t think Billiton has got, in this context, any desire to reach an agenda point. What they are looking to do is support research into sustainable resources.”

“I guess it comes from knowing some of the CEOs,” he reflects. “Some of them are genuinely driven by this issue of how is the planet going to sustain. Others are driven by ‘how am I going to maximise my bonus at the end of the year?’ And I guess those businesses driven by that — how am I going to maximise my bonus at the end of the year — are not the sort of places we’d find it easy to work with.”

He refers to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example and “Shell’s problems in Nigeria, equally problematic…. I wouldn’t be happy with the Exxon Chair in alternative energy. But I am convinced that there are companies in that list [points to an article about energy companies on his desk] that care about the future of humanity.”

Price is also keen to stress his belief that the extractive industries will have a role in the future. They might not look exactly as they do now, but they are still necessarily in his idea of the 22nd century.

“We’re still going to be dependent on natural resources… and you have to grow it or you have to dig it out of the ground. So, as far as I’m concerned, companies that dig things out of the ground, and companies that grow things are providing the essential stock of society.”

“My own view as a scientist, and as an environmental scientist, is that we are always going to need access to fossil hydrocarbon. In the future it’ll see crazy that we burnt them… [But] we’re always going to have to extract these materials in one form or another from out of the ground, and that’s always going to be a disruptive process.”

The personal relationship Price has forged with Billiton is clearly important to his belief in the project. Indeed, it is the Institute’s origin story. As Price explains, in 2008 he sat on a Research Assessment Exercise panel (part of the UK’s official system for distributing public funds for research) with one Andrew MacKenzie, who was in the process of moving from Rio Tinto to BHP Billiton. Mackenzie became CEO of BHP Billiton in 2013.

“We got to know each other during the times that people get to know each other, going away to the Lake District. Reading a thousand papers. We spoke and talked. And I told him about my developing vision then for research at UCL,” Price explains. Eighteen months later, MacKenzie invited UCL to put forward a proposal to Billiton. Price and some other senior colleagues drafted their vision for na Institute for Sustainable Resources, and Billiton liked it.

“I’m totally convinced that Andrew Mackenzie is a man of huge ethical considerations. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society. He’s genuinely scientifically literate. And he’s driven by and understands climate change.”

Whether Price’s conviction is enough to satisfy the critics is another matter.

In October last year, activists from the London Mining Network brought representatives from Colombia and Indonesia to UCL to raise concerns about Billiton, and were turned away.

On the Columbia issue, Price argues “They [Billiton] recognise there are problems,” pointing at their annual report, seemingly happy that this is enough.

”There are always going to be challenges in developing resources around the world,” he repeats. “I think the challenge is to say we will do everything to mitigate against it, and if there is a problem, try and solve it.”

What about the issue of academia challenging industry? This is often the reason given by industry for sponsoring research. Far from a desire to corrupt science, they relish an independence that tells it to them straight. Is that something UCL kept in mind in building the project then?

“We wouldn’t have a unit for industrial challenge or something like that,” Price replies. “But what we are committed to is disruptive thinking.”

I asked Price whether they had structures in place — either as part of the deal with Billiton, or just as UCL policy — to ensure academic independence, or at least evidence of such ‘disruptive thinking’ at work? He mentions that they’re developing their ethics policies and, as a consequence of professionalising the university’s fundraising capabilities, are improving due diligence studies for future philanthropic donations. What about auditing, I ask. Researchers in receipt of public money have to offer a host of notes on what they’ve achieved. Are they measuring around the relationship with Billiton? There’s an annual report, I’m told. What about measuring the impact? It’s too early, he tells me “In twenty years time.”

Considering the ethics of the issue more broadly, “Is capitalism a clean system?” he asks, replying to himself “No, I don’t think it is. Are we as an institution doing everything we could to fight capitalism? No. But again I’m afraid that’s a degree of complacency I think happens in my own personal life, I don’t know about you, but if I was as ethical as I wanted to be I probably wouldn’t eat meat… I think we’re all a bit soft around the edges on ethical things.”

“Are they [Billiton] perfect? No. Am I perfect? No. Is UCL perfect? No” he exclaims, adding with some frustration “this is a hugely inefficient building for energy. A door I can’t even close, I’m leaking energy.”

“We are suckered into the capitalistic model. I keep the lights on when I shouldn’t. I do all sorts of things that are irresponsible… If I really thought about it in greater detail, I’d be a better person. And the institution, every institution would be better if we were more like that. So I rely on my daughter, probably your age, to keep me on my toes. I rely on you to keep me on my toes. We will be kept on our toes because people like you ask the right questions. We’d do it anyway, but we’d probably do it with greater if you like, greater immediacy.”

But what about the role of universities to help us out of old destructive ways of seeing the world, or do that job of keeping power on its toes? How disruptive really is this thinking Price hopes UCL will offer? He seems happy to allow universities to sit back in their position a bit, take what their given rather than taking a lead as a driving force of social change. I ask him if I’m right to think that?

“No. I personally am challenging the university to look at Grand Challenges and these big questions. Will we be able to do it all? No. Could we do it more? Yes we could. I’d like more funds from BHP Billiton or somebody in order to do it. We’re all flawed, we all have feet of clay. But it doesn’t mean our heart isn’t in the right place.”

Written by . Published on February 11, 2015. Last edited on April 19, 2016.

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