Opinion: Our moral responsibility to change

Why corporations shouldn’t challenge our academic neutrality

The threats posed by climate change make objective academia more important than ever, writes Joshua Alston. That’s why universities have to be open about the impact of their donors, and oil companies shouldn’t be on campus.

In 1949, cigarette company Camel published adverts claiming that ‘more doctors smoke Camels’. By this time, they were very much aware that any doctors who smoked Camels were considerably more likely to die young, probably from lung or throat cancer. The purpose of this advert was to shed doubt on whether cigarettes damaged people’s health. Times have changed and the link between tobacco and cancer is doubted by only a handful of conspiracy theorists.

In other ways times have not changed. Exxon knew about climate change since 1968. They produced reports, and engaged in a PR campaign to hide that their business was causing environmental destruction. Exxon’s lies had far reaching consequences. The current US President still denies man-made climate change. Given the far-reaching consequences of climate change it is probable that Exxon’s lie will lead to more deaths than Camel’s.

Unlike deaths due to cigarettes these deaths will be among the global poor, largely people of colour. They will be among the people who have the have the least responsibility for climate change.

These stories would be very different with an academic establishment that was free from the impact of big business. It was the lack of a neutral, politically engaged academia that allowed Camel to claim for so long that cigarettes were not causing cancer. It was through the production of now discredited reports that allowed Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to spread climate change denial.

Now there is an academic consensus, if not a political one, on the severity of man-made climate change. That this consensus has only arrived so late is the result of universities, scientists, political theorists, the people who were supposed to be the bastions of independent academic enquiry, working with companies to obscure climate change and its effects. In doing so it has created the conditions for the greatest environmental catastrophe in human history.

Oil companies are still on campus. They are still invited in to lectures and to careers fairs. Whilst for the most part they are not engaged in climate change denial, they are promoting themselves as part of the solution to climate change, while at the same time devoting more and more of their budget to fossils fuels.

The largest portion of their research funding goes on finding ways to extract hard to reach fossil fuels, such as in tar sands. To remain below the internationally agreed two-degree threshold for limiting climate change this research needs to never be used. They are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem. They are causing climate change and are still using our universities to do it.

Universities have a moral responsibility to change. We can’t continue to allow corporations to challenge academic neutrality. Chemistry students in Leiden report guest lectures by Shell. Even more worryingly, all but one of the students we spoke to were unwilling to talk about these lectures for fear that it would compromise their future employment.

The student who was willing to speak, with the pre-condition of anonymity said ‘it was an interesting look at a real life process and it moved the chemistry out of the text book in to the real world’. The unwillingness to discuss these lectures reveals the extent to which that oil companies are using their economic power to limit criticism from the academic community.The unwillingness to criticise oil companies comes from the background of the increasing neo-liberalism of the academic environment.

Leiden University have put a new contract tender for a financial partner. However, there is no ethical partnership policy to limit the university’s collaboration with the least ethical companies. Companies that are complicit in human rights abuses, or have a track record of manipulating academic research could use this system to gain influence on Universiteit Leiden.

Erasmus University Rotterdam has announced a new donor fund which will allow donors to choose which projects get funding. The more dependent universities are on donations the more donors, including oil companies, will be able to supress research which challenges the basis for their industry and promote potentially flawed research that suits their needs.

Leiden University is much less transparent than Rotterdam about the relationship between their donors. It is impossible to tell what influence donors are having on academic neutrality. Research should be produced in the interest of society, rather than manipulated to fit the desires of corporations.

It is up to us to not make the mistakes of the academics of 50 or 20 years ago. This starts by being open about the impact of donors on our universities. We need a policy of ethical partnerships ensure that companies with a track record of using academics to produce flawed research, like Shell have no influence on our universities.

We need to focus our expertise on ways to challenge climate change and we can’t do that if those who benefit most from it are choosing which research gets funded or consigning students who speak out about climate change to unemployment. The threats posed by climate change means that an objective academia is more important than ever. We need to make this possible.

Joshua Alston is a member of Fossil Free Leiden University, a group of Leiden based student activists focussing on lessening the influence of fossil fuel producing companies on campus life

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