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UK environmental science: In association with Shell

The Natural Environment Research Council signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with Shell. You should be disturbed by this

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Workers subcontracted by Shell clean up an oil spill from an abandoned well in Oloibiri Town, Nigeria. Photograph: Ed Kashi/Corbis

Posted by Friday 7 February 2014 15.19 GMT

Today, the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with Shell. My thanks to Greenpeace for the tip.

From what I can make out, the memo doesn’t contain specific details of joint activities; it’s more a formal expression of shared interests and desire to interact more. A few eyebrows were raised when a similar agreement was signed with Arup in November, but such memos are not common and tend to be reserved for building relationships with similar public institutions in other countries.

You might well feel outraged by this. The partnership will, according to Nerc’s press release, allow Shell access to the knowledge and expertise drawn from Nerc’s £330m portfolio of research activities. What right does Shell have to such access, specifically? (Even if our Business secretary used to work there). Aren’t such resources a public good? It also declares an interest in working together ‘to understand the challenges each faces and identify where research may be able to contribute’. Why does Shell get such a role in helping set Nerc research agendas? What about scientists, and other industries, and civil society at large? And surely they, of any possible industrial partner, have a massive conflict of interest?

The deal, however it works out, offers Shell a lot of greenwash too, and a chance to tap into the immense cultural and social capital science holds. The odd bit of sponsorship of the arts doesn’t come close. Centrica’s hopes to line up academics to make its case on fracking looks tiny. This is the biggie. Forget sponsoring the Science Museum’s climate gallery, the nexus of British environmental science now comes branded in association with Shell. They’ve captured the castle. They’ve caught the scientific energies we have to understand our planet.

But relax. Put the climbing gear down, there’s no need to occupy Nerc’s office roof yet. This is business as usual for modern science. It’s not news, it’s normal.

It can be tempting to label oil and gas companies as anti-science. They’re not, even if the Royal Society once had to write a strongly worded letter to ExxonMobil. In many ways, they are very pro-science, because they know the power select parts of it offers them (just as they know how useful it is to keep bits as underfunded and discredited as possible).

There’s the new Nerc centre for doctoral training in oil and gas, and their recent re-brand to being in ‘The Business of the Environment.’ Or there’s the Shell geoscience lab in Oxford and the BP material science centre in Manchester. The new head of Imperial College is on the board of Chevron and the new President of the Royal Academy of Engineering is a non-executive director of BP. And these connections are not new. Lord Browne, for example. We can go further back. Indeed, it’s the origin story of many scientific institutions. There’s a reason why so much earth science happens in a school of mines.

And it’s maybe a good thing. Ron Oxburgh helped put climate change on Shell’s agenda. Similarly, Iain Gillespie, Nerc’s director of science, argues their work can make the oil industry greener. Science needs to get its money from somewhere, and we’re not going to quit fossil fuels yet. Working with Shell is part of Nerc’s attempt to open their work more, drawing on non-academic expertise and sharing their work more effectively. They are trying to ‘co-design and co-deliver new environmental science’ as their strategy plan puts it. Many will say there isn’t a story here. It’s normal, it might even be helpful.

So, should we shrug it off as business as usual, or be outraged?

Personally, I don’t like the idea that Shell is being offered a special place at the Nerc table. I also think it is business as usual but, if anything, this latter point upsets me the most, as does the fact the research councils think this sort of work can be slipped out with as little fuss as possible. It’s not a scandal. But it should be.

It’s become normal to side with the oil and gas industry in UK science, not challenge it. It’s become usual to assume no one, not even the green movement, will care. It’s become ok to give into the idea that science is there to serve a narrow set of economic interests and look to those interests for leadership, rather than to the public or scientific expertise itself. This is the biggest problem, far beyond any memos. If Nerc want to run with a ‘co-design’ approach to research, I approve, but they need to consider who they co-designing with, to what ends. If they want, in the words of today’s press release, to ‘support economic growth’ there are other things they could be growing than the oil and gas industry. Working with industry is one thing, but working with Shell is another, and they have to work with more than just industry too.

Science doesn’t have to be this way. We need to do more than add a green tinge to fossil fuels; we need to put as much effort as possible into quitting them. Publicly funded science should be doing something more visionary. If Shell need public scientific support, we could offer them some social scientists and engineers to help them transform to selling renewables. If Nerc wants to sign memos of understanding with anyone, they should try looking to their own workers and the British public at large.

Let yourself get angry about the Shell/ Nerc deal. See what new science might emerge from that anger.

Alice Bell is a freelance writer and researcher on science policy. Follow her on twitter @alicebell. Shell were were asked about the matter, but didn’t offer further comment.


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