The university has reserved the largest lecture hall in the Gorlaeus building for the debate on fossil ties. And with a turnout of several hundred students and staff, that is no unnecessary luxury. Strict security measures have been taken. Everyone has to register in advance and there are card and possibly bag checks upon entry. Half a dozen security personnel see to it that activists do not pull any stunts like they did during the Dies Natalis last February.
Board president Annetje Ottow and Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl kick off the event. ‘It’s important to listen,’ says Bijl. ‘That is why we’re here today. We need your insights. As a university, we want to contribute to the future of the planet, but we are concerned about losing knowledge if we break ties with the fossil industry.’
‘We can’t make this choice on our own,’ Ottow adds. ‘We need the ideas and insights of the academic community. All arguments have to be weighed up in order to make a choice. That is why listening is important.’
And that listening begins immediately when, accompanied by loud cheers from the audience, five academics present the board members with a petition calling for an immediate severing of ties with the fossil industry.
Before the plenary debate, moderator Roderik van Grieken briefly interviews a three-member panel on their views. In-Sook Pinxteren (one of the students who interrupted the Dies in February) and lecturer Gerrit Schaafsma largely agree. According to them, the university would do well to cut the ties as soon as possible.
The third panel member, chemistry professor Marc Koper, has reservations about the matter. ‘I want a transition to sustainable energy as soon as possible, and for that, we have to work together. If we let the government regulate the fossil industry, we can do so without any problems. It’s the government that has let us down so far what with the fossil subsidies that we’re forced to stop.’
Schaafsma disagrees. ‘We’re being used by the fossil industry; we are their pawns. Less than 3 per cent of their budget is spent on renewable energy.’
Next, the audience is presented with three statements; they get to join in the discussion and vote via their phones. Debate moderator Van Grieken is quick to add that the results are ‘not binding’.
The first statement ‘Legal frameworks should be the only restriction on academic freedom’ immediately leads to scepticism.
A substantial majority not only disagrees with the statement, but also has issues with how the question is formulated.
‘It’s sad that this discussion is being framed in terms of academic freedom,’ one student remarks. ‘That’s not what it’s about. We don’t want to prohibit research, it’s about where the money comes from.’ A lecturer concurs with him amid loud applause: ‘Money determines where we direct our attention and time. And this is about money. The statement is incorrect.’
A counterargument is heard from a chemist: ‘I do fundamental research. I’d rather not have the fossil industry controlling our energy supply either, but when it comes to fundamental research, I don’t see the harm in it.’
University Council member Victor van der Horst also makes a case for collaboration. ‘Our labs are full of inventions and innovations, but we need industry to translate them to large scale applications. If we cut those ties, no serious research will be done here in the future and our role in creating a sustainable world will be over.’
A doctor draws a comparison between collaboration with the fossil industry and tobacco industry-sponsored research into lung diseases. Researchers all over the world stepped away from that too, and no legal framework was needed. Medical professionals decided to take a moral stance themselves, and it paid off: ‘It was very controversial at first, but it made research better. Let’s not wait for a legal framework, but take matters into our own hands.’
‘It’s like a party congress,’ exclaims moderator Van Grieken as an overwhelming majority of the room votes in favour of immediately cutting ties with the fossil industry in response to the second statement.
Immediately after, the third statement appears on the screen: ‘Under what conditions can we cooperate with the fossil industry?’
The audience expresses its discontent with the proposition. Everyone responds via their phones and soon the screen is filled with: ‘Boycott the question’ and ‘Fossil fuels are killing us’.
When the three-member panel returns, Koper remains unconvinced. ‘Climate change is an existential threat. We should stop fossil subsidies. However, I’m not sure that cutting ties with the industry will lead to a quick solution.’
Student Pinxteren is more adamant: ‘We need to recognise that fossil companies are only looking to make profits and have no intention of changing. The crisis is now. A temperature rise of three to four degrees is disastrous. If the university continues to cooperate with the drivers of this crisis, it will be complicit in the destruction of life.’
Finally, the Executive Board is given the floor. Bijl: ‘What we’re going to do is come up with a new policy as soon as possible, in consultation with the participation. We will come back to that.’ Ottow: ‘We have much to think about. In order to chart the path forward, we need to listen to experts, to all of you.’
Last month, the university published a list of collaborations with the fossil industry, but whether that provides a full picture remains to be seen. A request filed under the Open Government Act by action group Mapping Fossil Ties earlier this year is still under consideration by the university.
In that request, not only do they ask about all research funding, but also about all financial ties, plus ancillary activities and consultancy work carried out by researchers for the fossil industry.
That request is so extensive that the university has enlisted the help of an external agency to process the documents. Mapping Fossil Ties has stated that it hopes to receive the first documents within a few weeks.