A damning statement from the Norwegian committee responsible for university research ethics challenges collaboration between universities and oil companies. After months of deliberation over the ethics of petroleum research, the Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) came to a strong conclusion: oil-related research at universities is unethical and irresponsible if it undermines climate targets.
The statement from NENT comes after a debate started at the University of Bergen (UiB) in the autumn of 2013. A group calling itself Fossil Free UiB was formed in the wake of protests against the renewal of a sponsorship deal with Norwegian oil giant Statoil, and sparked a wider debate about the ethics of collaborating with the petroleum industry. When the debate gained support among staff and students, the head of the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen, wrote to NENT for advice.
NENT is an advisory body on research ethics, which provides counsels and recommendations concerning concrete research projects. They decided to lift the debate at UiB to a national level, and asked all Norwegian universities to provide details of their involvement with the petroleum industry and their wider research on petroleum. They also requested a reflection on how this relates to the universities’ wider strategy on climate change. After several months deliberation, NENT’s conclusions call on universities to take the lead on dealing with climate change, and spearhead the transition to a sustainable society.
NENT’s statement problematizes not only industry relations, but also warns of the danger of a “vacuum of responsibility” where neither the government, the bodies that fund research, nor the universities, have taken the responsibility to assess the overall picture. They also find it “striking” that the universities have failed to reflect on their potentially conservative role in collaborating with the petroleum industry, or produce an overview of the extent of joint research or the amounts of money involved.
Out of all the universities asked for details on their industry collaboration, only the Norwegian Universities of the Life Sciences has an explicit strategy for contributing to sustainable development. They are also the only one without any direct involvement with the petroleum industry.
In their replies to NENT, several universities tried to justify their petroleum research by referring to the growing demand for energy globally, referring to prognoses that fossil fuels will continue to be an important part of the mix. They fail, however, to put this in the context of not meeting climate targets and overshooting 2 degrees of global warming. Another common trope is that competence related to petroleum can be transferred to the renewable sector. Why they cannot immediately start this transfer rather than delay it by several years, is far from clear. NENT, on the other hand, argues that any collaborations should be explicitly about transition, not continuing the current path.
Several of the questions NENT asked are relevant far beyond the borders of Norway:
What are the most important challenges we are facing with regards to the knowledge that we have, and how do we meet them? Are the universities contributing to the current unsustainable development , or are they constructive actors that can alter this direction? What place should research that contributes to prolonger petroleum dependence have in our institutions? Does collaboration with the petroleum industry bind up too much intellectual capacity and competence ? Does research funded by the industry contribute to legitimise the notion that a transition is not as urgent?
In light of current climate realities, it is imperative that flows of money and intellectual labour are channelled towards solutions rather than deepening the crisis through continued dependency on fossil fuels. This responsibility lies with the whole research community; management, departments, staff and students – especially those who influence funding and research priorities.
NENT’s statement has drawn a line in the sand. Norwegian universities have a clear ethical responsibility to help reach UN climate targets and to accelerate collective efforts to develop knowledge that underpins a transition. If one of the world’s most oil dependent countries can dare to raise this debate, then others, such as the resource-rich and highly competent UK institutions, should be able to follow.
Ragnhild Freng Dale is a theatremaker and PhD candidate in anthropology at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. She is a former student at UiB and an active part of the Fossil Free UiB group.