Last week, the sustainability think tank Changerism published a critical report about ties between the fossil fuel industry and Rotterdam School of Management (RSM). In the researchers’ view, these relations with corporations like Shell and BP legitimised a business model that is partly responsible for global warming and is taking next to no measures to prevent further climate change. The researchers call on the University to break off its relations with the fossil fuel industry (a full version of the report can be found on Changerism’s website). RSM dean Steef van de Velde offers a detailed response.

Were you surprised by the Changerism report?

“Of course, we knew they were working on this study. The Executive Board had asked the researchers to map out which relations the University maintains with various actors in the energy chain and issue recommendations in this context. I enthusiastically pledged our support to this study, since this is a very important theme for us.

“But it soon became clear from the authors’ ideological approach that they only wanted to examine our relations with the top 100 most polluting companies. We were aware that this angle would undoubtedly lead to unfavourable conclusions for our faculty.”

According to the authors of the report, RSM contributes to climate change, by working together with companies in the fossil fuel industry. What is your perspective on this conclusion?

“This actually wasn’t the authors’ conclusion, but their premise: that any form of collaboration with a fossil fuel company is bad. RSM’s mission is ‘to be a force of positive change in the world’ – precisely because we are convinced that we can and should play an important role in solving the major challenges that we face around the world. The energy transition is one such challenge. But it isn’t one that can be resolved in the short term. That’s why it wouldn’t solve a thing if universities were to sever their ties with companies in the fossil fuel sector. On the contrary. Our position is that precisely by working together with these companies, you can help minimise their footprint, until the actual transition has come about, and step up the energy transition process.

“We have performed studies that are critical of Shell and conducted research into renewable energy and into the transition toward electric vehicles. Unfortunately, the authors of the report have consciously ignored all these activities. They aren’t interested in the substantive details of our relationship with fossil fuel industry.”

‘It isn’t a case of Shell secretly bankrolling this study’

Steef van de Velde

One of the examples presented in the report is a study focussing on the Netherlands’ business climate for the headquarters of major corporations. This research was paid for by Shell, but the company wasn’t listed as a funding source in the publication. Why wasn’t Shell named as a financer?

“This study was commissioned by a committee established by the employers’ organisation VNO-NCW. The committee members included five representatives from the Netherlands’ private sector (AkzoNobel, DSM, Philips, Shell and Unilever) and two from VNO-NCW. This VNO-NCW committee commissioned the study and indicated which subjects were to be examined. To this end, the researchers were required to interview representatives of 50 major corporations, which were also all asked to help fund the study. The invoice could be sent to Shell. It was clear to us that the commissioning party was the VNO-NCW committee and that the invoice was to be sent to Shell – for sake of convenience.”

Shouldn’t this have been specified more clearly in the study report?

“The report clearly states that the study was commissioned by VNO-NCW. Of course, this implies that VNO-NCW also paid for the research. It isn’t a case of Shell secretly bankrolling this study. Each of the associated parties participated in the study. We don’t know for a fact whether they all helped fund it as well. What’s more, this research was performed nine years ago, which I believe is also relevant in this context.”

Nine years ago, the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Scientific Practice also required external sources of funding to be explicitly named in scholarly publications.

“That’s correct. What I meant to say is that back then, there was no reason to assume that so many years later, people would be drawing all these imputations from this case. At the time, the statement that the study was commissioned by VNO-NCW was a valid description of the actual situation: researchers had performed a study ordered by a VNO-NCW committee.”

In hindsight, don’t you regret it wasn’t stated a bit clearer?

“Yes and no. I’m certain that people can always find something that could put you in a very negative light. I don’t think you can phrase things so ‘water-tight’ that no one ever takes offence. Looking back, you could say that the way we phrased it wasn’t very elegant or fortunate, but unfortunately, this kind of thing happens every now and then.”

De partnership-overeenkomst hangt ingelijst aan de muur bij de roltrappen van het Mandeville-gebouw Image credit: Job Zomerplaag

Another point of criticism on the part of Changerism: the partnership charter between RSM and Shell. This document states that one of the goals of the partnership agreement is ‘for Shell to potentially influence the design of the RSM curriculum and the profile of students who attend the BSc/MSc/MBA programmes’.

“The text of this corporate partnership is free for everyone to read on the third floor of our building. That part could indeed have been phrased a bit better. What we actually mean by it is that our contacts with private companies are of major importance for the employability of our students and the practical relevance of our research. They serve as our sounding boards.”

Can a corporation like Shell influence the curriculum?

“I wish to emphasise that a company directly influencing our curriculum is out of the question. We do however closely consult with a wide range of parties to ensure that our curriculum is and remains relevant. This relates to matters like which business skills our students need to develop to be successful on today’s employment market. Shell’s Chief Information Officer is a member of our Advisory Board. This gives us insight into which IT skills our graduates need to acquire. Since many of our students come from China, we also have such an agreement with Huawei, for example – for a Chinese perspective on key business skills.”

Shell RSM Partnership uitsnede pagina 1
Een deel van de overeenkomst tussen Shell en de RSM

‘I definitely don’t want to evade my responsibility, but on our part, we didn’t recognise any malicious intent’

Steef van de Velde

As you put it: the phrasing for that particular paragraph is highly unfortunate. So why is it in the contract?

“Well, it simply slipped through the net. If you were to ask me who wrote that sentence: I have no idea. I signed it, but I didn’t draw up the actual document. I definitely don’t want to evade my responsibility, but on our part, we didn’t recognise any malicious intent. We didn’t put enough thought into how outsiders could interpret that specific sentence.”

Do you see any reason to adapt these agreements?

“Yes, of course we need to adapt them. We will be taking a close look at all our agreements. It would be far better, for example, if a charter like that states that Shell joins us in reflecting on the value of our curriculum.”

‘The arms industry is easier to isolate in that respect. We don’t need a transition for that.’

Steef van de Velde

Are there any companies that you shouldn’t want to collaborate with?

“We don’t work together with the arms industry or the porn industry. The principle that you can’t maintain relations with the fossil fuel industry isn’t pragmatic – it’s unfeasible. Our economy is so networked that unfortunately, we will continue to need fossil fuel for the time being. At present, a society without fossil fuel is inconceivable – the world would descend into chaos.

“The arms industry is easier to isolate in that respect. We don’t need a transition for that. And the tobacco industry is a 98% no-go area. It greatly depends on the details, but I can’t imagine that kind of research would yield results that contribute toward a specific transition. I’m very sceptical about that. Maybe, just maybe, they could decide to sponsor a study that determines how you can help people to quit smoking.”

You will be adopting one of recommendations made in the report: to set up a public register that lists all the faculty’s relations with the private sector. Why are you taking this step?

“Because we want to be very transparent. Making this register is a huge undertaking. We still need to think out the basic structure, how we will be collecting data, and how we will be providing access. We have a whole range of relations with the private sector; numerous individual researchers who work with corporate data. And of course, we also organise a lot of guest lectures – these need to be mapped out as well. In addition, we deal with some 2,000 final theses per year. Many of these are based on students’ work as an intern at a private company. I expect we will need to structurally employ two or three people if we plan to record each of these collaborations in a register.”

Should a register like that also include details on the revenue associated with specific collaborations?

“Absolutely. Which companies we’ve worked with; substantive details on the programmes; who has paid for what.”

‘De beweringen van Changerism zijn aantoonbaar uit de lucht gegrepen en andere zijn uit de context gehaald’

Steef van de Velde

Changerism calls the scientific integrity of a number of studies into doubt. Do you believe it is necessary to hold a follow-up investigation?

“We have nothing to hide. Changerism’s positions are demonstrably plucked out of the air, and other findings are presented completely out of context [in this document, Van de Velde explains in further detail why he believes the think tank’s accusations are incorrect, TF]. Our scientific integrity is of the highest standard. And sure, it’s one thing for us to claim this ourselves; but it’s better for this to be confirmed by external experts. That is why I have asked the Executive Board to appoint an external independent committee that can investigate the academic integrity of our relations with the private sector.”

Which brief will this committee be given?

“We still need to determine the exact brief in consultation with the Executive Board, but it will definitely include examining the relations put forward by Changerism. Basically, this is what the study will boil down to: it will focus on the relations that RSM maintains with the private sector, but also with civil society and public authorities. We wish to determine whether these relations stand the test of scientific integrity, and whether we have structured our procedures in a way that minimises risks.”