Intro to “Rich Seams or Dark Pools? Fossil Fuel Funding and University Research”

24 Jan 2014 admin
Protest at the Shell School of Earth Sciences in Oxford. Photo by Hugh Warwick
Protest at the Shell School of Earth Sciences in Oxford. Photo by Hugh Warwick

This was the introduction given to an event at UCL in January 2014 entitled Rich Seams or Dark Pools? Fossil Fuel Funding and University Research, reproduced here with the kind permission of Professor Jane Rendell.

Thank you for coming and to those of you presenting ideas for agreeing to do so.

My name is Jane Rendell, and I am based at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. I’d like to thank the UCL Urban Lab and the Architectural Research Fund for providing financial support for the event, and also the Vice Provosts Research and Enterprise who lend their academic support to this discussion.

The title of the event refers to a tension – between fossil fuel funding as a ‘rich seam’, as an opportunity or resource to be exploited, but also potentially as a ‘dark pool’. Dark pools are sources of unregulated financial exchange in the corporate world. This afternoon I hope we can begin to explore the tensions in this opposition or choice.

To get going, I’d like to note a few issues, which both explain and serve as a bit of background in terms of the reasons for holding this event, and that might suggest some pointers for discussions we may wish to have as the afternoon progresses.

First, Privatisation:

This event is a follow up to a seminar I co-chaired with my colleague Murray Fraser, in May 2013 called, Structures, Governance, Finance, and Accountability, which was part of a series called Future Univercities, co-hosted by the Bartlett and Urban Lab, where we looked at some of the issues facing universities under what some are calling an enforced privatisation, or certainly what is a set of cultural shifts occurring in universities as a result of the reduction of state funding and the introduction of student loans for students for UK and EU at BA Level.

As Andrew McGettigan, a speaker at the event in May, and author of The Great University Gamble: Money Markets and the Future of Higher Education published by Pluto Press, points out, we need to be careful around the term privatization. He states that:

The traditional understanding of a university is of an independent community of scholars pursuing knowledge and advancing learning. Unlike their counterparts in some European countries, UK HEIs are not state institutions, their academics are not civil servants. …  They are legally independent corporate institutions with a charitable status…’, he identifies six general categories, including universities like UCL founded prior to 1992, which are chartered corporations, in receipt of a Royal Charter. (Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets, and the Future of Higher Education), (London: Pluto Press, 2013), pp. 126-8.

Yet, despite not being state entities, the majority of funding received by universities has in the past been public funding through the UK’s, HEFCE, which includes student fees and research funds, as QR, or through Research Council funding. This situation is rapidly changing.

Second, Impact/Influence/Engagement:

In recent years, both as the result of government directives delivered through say the REF, and the cutting back of funding delivered through the Research Councils, we’ve seen the rise of the so-called ‘third arm’ of activity in universities.

Alongside teaching and research, we now have enterprise – this University, for example, has a Vice Provost of Enterprise, the Faculties usually have Vice Deans of Enterprise, and Departments often have Directors of Enterprise. Academics are assessed for promotion in terms of their enterprise activities as well as their teaching, research and enabling.

Enterprise includes all kinds of activity – from knowledge transfer to public engagement – as well as other kinds of partnership with industry. In UCL enterprise activities involve many areas of the university, drawing on skills and expertise from members of staff engaged in academic support, in units and centres which have historically either not existed at all, or if they have existed, have often not been familiar to many academics, especially those in the arts and humanities for whom sources of funding for academic research through industry links have been to date less common that in the medical and engineering sciences.

These funding support from industry can take the form of business sponsorship and also charitable donations, both named and anonymous.

So we might want to consider the implications of the different kinds of influences exerted by different kinds of funding sources – public, such as the state, on the one hand, through various directives and audits such as the REF, and private, through corporate partnerships, sponsorship, donations etc., on the other.

The 1988 Bologna Declaration, titled the Magna Carta Universitatum, adopted by EU Ministers of Education in 1999, reads:

To meet the needs of the world around it, [a university’s] research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power. (Quoted in McGettigan, The Great University Gamble, p. 114.)

How far do we agree with this definition today? And how does it inform the issues facing us in making links with industry, for example?

How do we respond to the need to engage, and to demonstrate, as the REF’s impact requires of us, that our research is able to influence audiences outside academia, and in that act of influencing, that we as academics are not in turn influenced, that we are able to maintain our independence and integrity? It’s quite a tall order. The relation that’s being described is quite complex psychologically: that in a relationship, one partner is able to influence the other, but not be influenced themselves. It is also a relationship which is also extremely hard to evidence.

In recent months the Times Higher Education has included a great many interesting articles on this topic, including those, which in arguing for the acceptance of money from industry also note the potential pitfalls, and the need for careful regulations:

For example, Chris Higgins, VC and Warden of Durham University, notes:

 Thus university governing bodies need clear and transparent policies that define which individual or panel will make decisions and judgements, and within what parameters. (Chris Higgins, ‘(Almost) all donations gratefully received’, Times Higher Education, 27 June 2013, pp. 34-9, p. 39.)

The nature of the exchange between the universities and industry seems relatively underdiscussed, and certainly underdebated publicly in universities. It seems to me that it is important to discuss in far more detail than we have in the past, the different kinds of relation at play – sponsorship, charitable donation, partnership etc – and what each one can offer.

We need to understand much more about the ethical procedures – such as due diligence – that we need in place for making decisions about the acceptance of external funds from industry, and the kind of governance structures required for monitoring the relationships, and if arguments are made concerning the need to influence industry, then we need performance indicators in place to ensure that engagement and change is taking place in the activities of our industrial partners.

In their dialogue on the corporate sponsorship of the art world, the artist Hans Haacke, in conversation with the sociologist/anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, says:

The American term sponsoring more accurately reflects that what we have here is really an exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors, and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored. (Pierre Bourdieu and Hans Haacke, Free Exchange [1994] (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), p. 17.

If the brand/logo of the partner doing the sponsoring is kept visible in the exchange, then this would suggest that the exchange between the two involves a desire for the relation between the two partners to be viewed publicly, and for the partner doing the sponsoring to wish to be associated with the values represented by the sponsored and vice versa.

In the university sector, what is the key value we give to our brand, is it the notion of independence of thought?

And here the roles of media, PR, branding, in the production of narratives, and the presentation of the self, etc., become extremely important parts of the process of exchange.

But if the donation is anonymous, or the branding is not made visible, what does this suggest concerning the exchange taking place, and the research being conducted?

And as well as issues of visibility, there is also the issue of direct and indirect influence. In situations where donors/sponsors do not have any clear direct influence over the research that takes place, how do we understand indirect influence, for example, the self-censorship that might take place, if an academic chooses not to show/do something in order to please the sponsor in the hope for more funding?

Third, Sustainability:

Here will keep my points extremely brief, as it is not an area of expertise for me, and we have others who can speak to this this afternoon with a high degree of specialism.

What we want to look at today are the particular issues that arise when fossil fuel companies provide donations or sponsor research in universities.

How do decisions concerning what topics their funds will provide research for get made – and does this matter? If Shell or BP or BHP Billiton, for example, funds an Institute of Sustainability, or a School of Mining, or a Department of French. Is there a difference? What are the implications around the choice of subject matter, and its relation to the activities of the company involved?

It seems to me, that sustainability is a highly contested zone, and thus the issue of vested interests is a potentially greater threat in this area, and thus the need to protect academic independence becomes of paramount importance.

In a article of ‘Frackademia’ – the new partnerships formed between academia and the fracking industry – Cary Nelson, notes, that:

But the full menu of conflicts in force when universities become fracking partners is greater still. Frackademia constitutes a new institutional identity formed by a mixture of political and financial pressures, an identity that can compromise both the environment and academic research. (Cary Nelson, ‘Fracking Research – Playing With Fire?’, Times Higher Education, 19 September 2013, pp. 40-5, p. 43.)

And George Monbiot’s article, ‘La Nouvelle Trahison des Clercs’ published in the Guardian on the 14 May 2013, asks what the ethical difference is between taking money from tobacco companies to fund cancer research, which universities jointly decided they would NOT do in 1998, and taking fossil fuel money for energy research. Especially since, as Monbiot notes,

‘Last week, two days before CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, Oxford University opened a new geoscience laboratory, named after its sponsor, Shell. Among its roles is helping to find and develop new sources of fossil fuel’.

I’m going to leave things here for now…

And briefly describe the structure of this afternoon’s event. This comprises three conversations, each of which will start with some initial comments from a range of presenters, broaden into a conversation between them, and then open into a dialogue with you the audience. We have presenters from many different parts of UCL, and also a few outside speakers, who have kindly agreed to come along today to lend us their expertise.

In the first conversation we will start with the large scale, identifying some overarching themes and issues in the fossil fuel funding of university research; in the second, we will go in a bit closer and take a more detailed look at a specific case study; before returning for the final conversation of the day, to the larger scale, to think specifically about future directions.

Focus Areas