Academic staff: don’t abandon all collaboration with fossil fuel companies

Last week, climate activists demanded once again that universities break their ties with the fossil fuel sector. Some academic staff are critical of this, however. They allege it would actually be harmful to sustainability.

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According to academic staff in Amsterdam and Utrecht, companies like Shell are indispensable for research into green energy. Universities should therefore not simply turn away the outstretched hand of those companies, as climate activists are demanding.


Thirty professors and researchers from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) have written a critical open letter about their university’s decision to put collaboration projects with the fossil fuel industry on hold for the time being. “Collaboration with a broad spectrum of private parties is actually badly needed in order to realise the energy transition and achieve the climate targets”, one of the co-signatories tells news platform Folia.

The UvA’s moratorium is, in their view, ill-considered. Fossil fuel companies such as Shell have “a great deal of knowledge and facilities that are essential if the results of our research are to be applied on a large scale in practice”, the critics say. And what’s more, by refusing potential collaboration in advance the university would also be restricting their academic freedom.

Balancing act

Vice-chancellor of Utrecht University (UU) Henk Kummeling is another who does not regard stopping the collaboration straight away as an option. In an interview with news platform DUB he talked of the thirteen research projects in Utrecht that are being funded partly by the fossil fuel industry. He takes the view that such funding stimulates green research. “We are really no longer helping Shell pump up oil.” Academic staff at UU tell him that the company “has a particular infrastructure” that they can make good use of.

However, the vice-chancellor wants the collaboration to be “more transparent” and the oil company to increase its energy transition budget. “It’s all part of a complicated balancing act”, says Kummeling. “We have to help companies like Shell and convince them too.”

When climate activists from University Rebellion and End Fossil Occupy at TU/e ended their occupation action after a week on 13 December last year, Executive Board President Robert-Jan Smits announced the Executive Board's position on cooperation with the fossil fuel industry: "That as part of this (combating climate change and promoting sustainability, ed.) we have confirmed that we only want to work with the fossil industry on renewables and sustainability. Providing more transparency is part of that."

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