A study carried out by the Changerism sustainability thinktank showed that the Rotterdam School of Management has close ties with fossil fuel companies such as Shell, BP, GazProm and ExxonMobil, to the point where the faculty’s scientific integrity might be compromised. Erasmus University responded to the study by calling for a study of its own, to investigate these partnerships. I am all in favour of that, but more than that will be required.
Universities are increasingly dependent on companies to fund their research. This commercialisation sometimes results in slightly biased research and teaching. Judging from Changerism’s study, Shell exerts a certain level of influence on both teaching and research. For example, Shell co-funded a study whose conclusion was that it would be good if multinationals, including Shell, were to be given tax breaks. The study report does not mention how much Shell contributed to the study. The report became part a successful lobbying campaign, which resulted in the so-called RDA arrangement, which in turn resulted in a €500 million tax break. In other words, the conclusions of this science sounded suspiciously like a commercial for the sponsor.
Hardly any groundbreaking innovations
Biased science is one major consequence of the ongoing commercialisation of science, but there are other consequences, as well. The way in which science is currently funded by the government is resulting in major scientific questions no longer being able to be posed.
Universities receive less and less funding for long-term basic research. Instead, the government awards an increasingly large share of its funds to research projects carried out in partnership with external parties. Half of the money made available by NGOs, i.e., government funding for which all Dutch universities have to compete, is earmarked for the so-called ‘top sectors’, which focus on research-and-development projects. Generally, only research that is carried out in partnership with the business community (for instance, in the Energy ‘top sector’) is eligible for this type of funding.
In July, the Ministry of Economic Affairs was forced to conclude that the billions spent on the ‘top sectors’ were hardly resulting in groundbreaking innovations. Generally, long-term pure research, carried out independently, is more likely to result in major breakthroughs than short-term studies carried out in association with companies. And we will really need such breakthroughs to deal with climate change, the negative consequences of the fossil fuel industry and the switch to green energy.
In need of maintenance work
Another example: in 2015 the Dutch Safety Board found that the companies extracting natural gas in the province of Groningen had prioritised maximum yields and had not sufficiently safeguarded the safety of the people of Groningen. The Board stated, “As far as the effects of natural gas extraction are concerned, the development of knowledge seems to be in need of some maintenance work.” The Safety Board recommended the establishment of an ongoing, long-term research programme in which scientific research could be carried out integrally and independently. Two years later, the Board found that no such programme had been established.
Proponents of commercialisation and of collaboration with the business community often say that these things are good because they make science more socially relevant. However, the aforementioned example shows that the scientists concerned failed to conduct research that was relevant to the one hundred thousand people in Groningen whose homes sustained damage and whose safety was compromised due to gas extraction. Erasmus University did carry out, with ample funding, a study commissioned by Shell on how to increase public support for natural gas extraction, which seems to suggest that the interests of companies rather than people’s interests were being prioritised.
Such things happen not just at Erasmus University but at all Dutch universities. This Thursday, at my request, the Lower House will discuss the close ties between the fossil fuel industry and the universities. I will propose that the study investigating the ties with the fossil fuel industry carried out by Changerism at Erasmus University be duplicated at all Dutch universities. Furthermore, I want the Minister to present some proposals as to how to ensure that universities become less dependent on the business community. The Socialist Party would like to see more funding earmarked for independent research, and more transparency. In addition, SP wants direct relations between companies and scientists to be severed and academics to be better protected from pressure.
Last Monday, prior to the official opening of the new academic year, I was standing on Erasmus University’s campus with several members of the SP youth department ROOD, holding a banner that read, ‘Get the (s)hell out of science’. I feel politicians should not be the only people speaking out on such matters. As far as we are concerned, students and academics should be speaking out, too. They are doing so in Belgium, where last week, two rectors advocated different funding methods and less competition. It is vital that academics fight for independent science, particularly now that science is often being dismissed as ‘just an opinion’ and now that we really need science to combat climate change.
Member of Parliament for the Dutch Socialist Party