Conflict-of-Interest statement: The author was an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, and has signed the letter mentioned in this news article.
Today sees the launch of a new partnership between the University of Oxford and Shell. A number of Oxford alumni, staff and students wrote a public letter in the Guardian opposing the partnership, and what they saw as the ‘growing trend’ of oil companies funding, and thus potentially influencing, UK university research agendas.
The website for the Shell-Oxford Research Collaboration states very clearly that the top research theme for the Shell Geoscience Laboratory at the Oxford Earth Sciences Department will be ‘unconventional hydrocarbons’; sources of oil and gas which require unconventional extraction methods. Sources of these unconventional hydrocarbons include shale gas, shale oil, and coal bed methane. Shale gas is extracted by the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, which involves pumping large volumes of water and chemicals, many hundreds of metres past the water table, to fracture rock which then releases gas which can then be collected to use as energy.
Corporate funding for this kind of new energy research in the UK follows a trend already set by Durham University’s Energy Institute (funded by Chevron, BP and Shell), and it also suggests that US-style corporate sponsorship of unconventional gas extraction research, defined by activists in the US as ‘frackademia’, has now officially arrived in some of the UK’s most well-respected universities. Frackademia is characterised by academic endorsement of the unconventional gas extraction technology – which may be damaging to the environment, either as an immediate polluter of water supplies, or as a climate change accelerator. As the letter in the Guardian stated:
Shell’s core business activities and political lobbying are pushing us towards a future with a global temperature increase well in excess of 2C. Oxford’s own climate scientists are warning us that we need to leave the majority of known fossil fuels in the ground, and yet this new partnership will undertake research that will help Shell to find and extract even more hydrocarbons.
Frackademia can also be damaging to academic reputation: the SUNY (State University of New York) Buffalo Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) had to close their centre in November 2012, when it was clear that there were serious conflict-of-interest allegations against the authors of the very first paper published by the Institute: All of the co-authors of this paper had direct ties to the oil and gas industry, as did four out of five of its peer reviewers. The head of the SUNY Buffalo said in a press release, when announcing the closure of the Institute, that:
The university upholds academic freedom as a core principle of our institutional mission. With that being said, academic freedom carries with it inherent responsibilities…The May 15, 2012 report…led to allegations questioning whether historical financial interests influenced the authors’ conclusions. The fundamental source of controversy revolves around clarity and substantiation of conclusions. Every faculty member has a responsibility to ensure that conclusions in technical reports or papers are unambiguous and supported by the presented data. It is imperative that our faculty members adhere to rigorous standards of academic integrity, intellectual honesty, transparency, and the highest ethical conduct in their work. Because of these collective concerns, I have decided to close the Shale Resources and Society Institute.
Back in the UK, many current and former students and staff members of Oxford University are questioning allowing Shell, well-known for their ‘unconscionable activities globally’, to fund a such a centre in order to ‘buy legitimacy’ and progress its investment into shale gas in the UK. The letter highlighted a few of these activities:
Shell’s research money is also buying legitimacy for its unconscionable activities globally. These include human rights abuses in the Niger delta, reckless drilling plans in the Arctic, fracking in South Africa, and carbon-intensive tar sands extraction that undermines indigenous rights in Canada. Worryingly, the government is endorsing this partnership, with energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey attending the launch.
The government appears to be comfortable that its cuts to research funding are pushing our best universities into partnerships with the world’s worst companies. We urge Oxford University to lead by example and dissociate itself from Shell before its own reputation is tarnished and its students’ futures are jeopardised by runaway climate change.
Campaigners are saying that the partnership undermines Oxford University’s academic credibility and conflicts with its work on mitigating and preventing climate change.
A spokesman from Shell said that the company already funds work at several academic institutions in the UK and globally, mentioning Aberdeen University and Imperial College; that they ‘recognises that certain organisations are opposed to our industry’; and they ‘respect the right of individuals and organisations to engage in a free and frank exchange of views about our operations’.
A spokesperson for Oxford University said:
The Shell-Oxford research partnership is about fundamental geosciences research. All Oxford University research is rigorous, independent and objective, and the terms of the partnership with Shell protects that independence. Shell is supporting research the University already wanted to pursue, both financially and through providing crucial data that will enable us to tackle fundamental research problems it would be impossible to study otherwise.