Disinvesting unis: Tip of the speedily-melting iceberg

A new form of climate change activism has been speedily flying through American Universities the last year. And it’s coming to Europe. It’s interesting partly just to see people caring about climate change again, but whether this fits your own political interests or not, it’s also because of the particular approach it takes – disinvestment – which suggests some new public interest in the way we plan and organise science.

Disinvestment is, quite simply, the opposite of investment. The campaign invites students to think about their universities as financial institutions – not just sites for learning, research or socialising – and ask questions about where their universities invest their large endowments. There is some history of this with respect to South Africa under apartheid and the tobacco industry, and focusing on pension funds rather than money held by universities, but this quantity of activity on fossil fuel disinvestment is reasonably new.

Seeded in universities, it has broadened to the financial clout of cities and religious institutions too, even (slightly embarrassingly) the endowments of green NGOs. Last July, American environmentalist Bill McKibben published a long, thorough and impassioned article in Rolling Stone entitled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math outlining what was described as “three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe”. This was followed by a Rolling Stone sponsored tour of campuses across the states entitled “Do the Math”.

The focus of the rhetoric has very much been the idea that this is all simply a matter of the logical application of a few numbers; the maths of how climate change is happening (scientific) and the maths of how it might be solved (economic). This is somewhat of an illusion, as the bulk of this work is politics. The tour might have featured “after-math” parties (yeah, really) but this was a space for local groups could organise, not a chance to get your squared paper out. The tour bus itself contained what McKibben calls, in a follow up Rolling Stone piece in February, “a bevy of progressive heroes” author Naomi Klein, indigenous activist Winona LaDuke, filmmaker Josh Fox, Hip Hop Caucus founder Lennox Yearwood. McKibben also argued that universities were the places to start such activity because they were where we found out about global warming, and that the contain communities who understand the maths. He’s forgetting that they are social spaces where, unusually people of different countries and different generations come together. That’s important for climate change, which is an issue with unusually large global and temporal reach.

When I was first told about plans to move this campaign to the Europe, I was sceptical it’d work. It’s not that people aren’t interested, just that our universities are just funded differently, without quite the same endowments. So I was impressed with the way the idea has been redeveloped and extended by People and Planet. They start with a sort of “Move your money” approach of demanding universities screen for and exclude the fossil fuel industry from their investment portfolio (or perhaps move “our” money, which is why the campaigns have traction). However, they go on to focus on the other forms of capital universities hold. There is the symbolic cultural and social capital such institutions can offer through honorary degrees or sponsorship of events and student societies. Perhaps most importantly is the way in which certain industries (not just energy) have been able to capture the energies of our scientists and engineers. So People and Planet are also asking UK higher education to work harder at offering students with more diverse careers advice, refocus research to climate solutions rather than fossil fuel research and, perhaps most importantly of all, demand more research funding for renewables.

They started with a protest for the opening of the University of Oxford’s “Shell Geoscience Laboratory” along with a letter in the Guardian from angry graduates (alumni being a useful form of political pressure as universities increasingly try to fundraise and market themselves through them).

This new Shell laboratory is just tip of the speedily-melting iceberg though, and whatever your own views on fossil fuels, this protest draws attention to the ways in which collaborations like this are commonplace. The People and Planet campaign invites us to at least notice such use of universities, and have a think about whether it’s pulling our public resources in the directions we want.

Last summer, BP announced it would invest £64 million to set up an International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM) based at the University of Manchester. The Telegraph had a lovely headline with “BP invests in UK research to help it drill deeper” but Nature News was perhaps slightly more astutely on the money with their observation that as corporate research-and-development labs wither, many are turning to campuses to fill their research needs. Universities seem quite happy for their spaces to be used in such ways. Indeed, they are being encouraged to as our funding system is increasingly being pushed to favour matched funding (for example). This gets played as a mix of “but we need our limited funds to be topped up” and “collaboration is good” but it limits you to only asking questions that serve interests of those who have money.

Academics like to kick up a fuss about need to stand up for “blue skies” research in the face of corrupting directional research, but this is of the most pernicious red herrings in science policy. Because it’s good to direct bits of research – and we’ve been routinely doing it for years – the question is how and where.

As well as funding policies, there are corporate members of the research council peer review colleges (i.e. people who get to decided what research gets funded by public money). This is a good thing. BAE, Shell, Pfizer et al contain some great expertise worth tapping into. They also help the academy lift ideas out of itself a bit, stop it being too closed minded. But if we’re drawing on industry, there are other external experts we could draw on too. To put this in some context, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s peer review college (pdf) contains thirty members from BAE systems (in comparison, there are eighteen from the University of Sussex).

We should also remember softer influences, like the ability of larger companies to buy space at careers fairs (and this runs right down to the careers advice we give primary schoolchildren). There’s also the sponsorship of events for senior academics and policy makers and it’s increasingly common to find universities have devoted offices to corporate partnership (e.g. Imperial’s members and UCL’s).

Whatever your personal view on whether we should keep fossil fuels in the ground or not, we should welcome any greater interest in the politics and ethics of what we do with the resources held by our universities; their people, their ideas, their hard work, their money, their histories and social credibility.

If you believe that science and technology has power to change the world (I do) it’s worth keeping an eye on which particular visions of the future it’s structured by.


This was first published in the June edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read the August edition’s piece on health data. See their new educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).

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