“I would like to sever all ties immediately, but can you still do research then?”

Debate on UM’s ‘fossil ties’

13-12-2023 · Reportage

Maastricht University must dedicate itself to a sustainable and ‘fossil-free’ future. That is what the students and staff agreed on during the ‘sustainability debate’, in SBE’s Franz Palmzaal on Monday evening. But how should that be done? Immediately sever all ties with the fossil industry? Or is the energy transition actually accelerated if you continue to work together? The opinions are strongly divided.

“No, we’re not taking any decisions today,” is the statement at the beginning of the evening. The primary aim is to collect ideas on this “very important subject,” says rector Pamela Habibović. Before the summer, the Executive Board issued a statement that contained a first move: the Board regards the university as a thought leader and a role model for a fossil-free society. One of the aims is to no longer support cooperation with parties that obstruct the transition.

But how should this be done in practice? That is what students and staff are invited to think about. Today is the kick-off, which will be followed by debates in all faculties in spring. The results will be used by the UM's Sustainability Team to draw up a recommendation for the Executive Board by the end of the academic year.

The evening shows that the discussion is not an easy one. After all, society - and science too - are closely intertwined with the fossil industry. “In the past, it was defensible that universities had ties with the industry,” says professor of the History of Science, Cyrus Mody, in a short lecture. “A great deal of research, including climate research, has been made possible with funds from oil companies. But since the 1980s, those companies have also been doing their best to curtail academic freedom, for example through so-called merchants of doubt [scientists who deliberately cause confusion on subjects on which there is widespread consensus, ed.]. In addition – despite all the knowledge that is available on climate change – they continue to invest billions in fossil fuels, because they believe that that is where they can get the greatest profits. Is cooperation still defensible under those conditions?”

Foot in the door

One third of those present believes that this is not the case, an online poll shows: they believe that UM should sever all ties with the fossil industry. “In science, it is all about nuance, but the question is whether we should actually still be nuanced today,” says a researcher in the audience. “If we issue a powerful statement as a university, perhaps other organisations and businesses will follow.” Another adds: “Oil companies have the money and the means to do something about climate change, but they only invest a very small part of their profits in innovation. Why should we still cooperate with such manipulative companies?”

A larger share, two thirds of the audience, believes that collaboration is still possible with conditions. “What I would like most, is to sever all ties immediately, but is that realistic?” a student wonders. “Is there still enough money to do research then?” Besides, you no longer have a foot in the door, another adds. “Perhaps the oil companies will then no longer invest any money in innovation.” A researcher who cooperates with the fossil industry: “I want to work on the transition, which can be done most effectively if all parties are around the table.” And think about the hassle when you terminate all contracts, another says. “I’d rather put that energy into research and innovation.”

Greenwashing

But this cooperation should be transparent. Perhaps there should be an ethical code, or a committee that reviews the collaborations, is a suggestion that is made several times. “Just like in the case of animal tests and medical research.” But does that not create a lot of bureaucratic fuss? And what exactly should those conditions and rules be? Can you collaborate with a company that was ‘bad’ in the past, even though they now launch a good proposal? What should one do if they subsequently make selective use of the research outcomes (cherry picking) or use these to create a sustainable image for themselves (greenwashing)? And should one not use a much wider approach than merely UM, to prevent the oil companies from approaching institutes that are less demanding when it comes to setting conditions? Opinions are sharply divided.

Nevertheless, this is a good starting point for the discussion, concludes Frank Boons, chairman of the Sustainability Team, at the end of the evening. “Hopefully, this will eventually lead to clear policies, and a culture within the university in which everybody takes sustainability into consideration.” To achieve this, Boons does hope that subsequent debates will have more participants. Whereas the discussion in other cities appears to gather great interest – in Leiden and at the University of Amsterdam, students occupied buildings earlier this year to protest against fossil ties – the turnout in Maastricht tonight is a mere fifteen students and twenty employees.