It’s 22nd July 2011, and another arts, fossil fuel sponsorship, censorship story breaks. There’s a furore over a newly commissioned public sculpture at the University of Wyoming. Wyoming is a US state which mines more coal than any other in the union. The piece, called Carbon Sink, What Goes Around Comes Around by British artist Chris Drury draws the link between coal, climate change, and the pine beetle infestation that is devastating the Rocky Mountains because the climate no longer gets cold enough in winter to control their numbers. The trouble is, the University is heavily backed by the fossil fuel industry, and Carbon Sink has provoked a wounded wail: “They get millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me, demonising the industry,” said Marion Loomis, the director of the Wyoming Mining Association… “I understand academic freedom, and we’re very supportive of it, but it’s still disappointing.” Drury was surprised. “I thought it was a fairly innocuous thing to do. But it’s kind of upset a lot of people here. Perhaps it was slightly more obvious because it is slightly more crucial in this state. But this is a university so I expected to start a debate, not a row.” Tom Lubnau, a Wyoming state legislator commented “While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget… every now and then, you have to use some of these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University about where their paychecks come from.”
In 2003, PLATFORM collaborated with new economics foundation and Corporate Watch on a report “Degrees of Capture: Universities, the Oil Industry and Climate Change” which examined the relationship between Britain’s universities and oil industry sponsorship of research and facilities, and how that relationship has a bearing on climate change. Amongst many other significant findings, the report found that the then balance of university-based energy research and development (R&D) significantly increased our dependence on fossil fuels, and undermined the development of renewable energies, thus going directly against other government directives such as the 2003 Energy White Paper which set a target for the UK to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide by 60% by 2050. The detailed report caused a lot of useful outraged responses, especially from universities in Scotland, and the Scottish Executive, many of former being heavily backed by the North Sea oil industry.
In 2004, at the invitation of the Institute for Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts at the University of Bath, we created a exhibition and conversation from Degrees of Capture which addressed the following questions:
What constitutes an ethical relationship between academic research and a business sponsor or partner?
To what extent are these relationships between academia and business part of a public relations function, in the same way as companies sponsor cultural and arts events?
To ensure academic freedom, shouldn’t academic institutions or individuals develop an ethical policy for engaging with business?
In these days post Browne Review of Higher Education where the free market is being given a massive thumbs up and even arts courses are being driven to position themselves as good for business, it’s time to regroup. Browne is Lord John Browne, ex-Chief Executive of BP, Chair of Tate’s Board of Trustees, and lover of opera, owner of a palazzo on the Grand Canal. The recent reinstatement of the arts, culture and higher education areas of public life that should be governed by market forces, and not as a civil society “good” (however problematic) has been given a huge boost under Browne’s recommendations, which must be resisted.