Protesters are calling for transparency, for the University to be clear about the exact nature of its dealings with Shell...
I think that's entirely fair. We must be transparent; the Central Student Council recently asked this of us as well. To be quite specific: the UvA is participating in three projects funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and Shell is one of the partners in the consortium because they are contributing to the research. All three projects involve research aimed at sustainability and the environment. The first study focuses on reducing the impact of the greenhouse gas methane on our environment. The second deals with measuring devices that have potential applications in medicine and other areas. The third is about purifying brackish water. There is also a large nationwide consortium, headed by TU/e, UU and RUG, that conducts research into sustainable chemistry, and the UvA participates in that consortium, too.
Does Shell sponsor the UvA in other ways?
No, and maybe it's a good idea to be clear about what we don't do. Under no circumstances does the UvA take part in research that promotes the use of fossil fuels. We also do not receive money from Shell for academic conferences, to pay for our researchers to travel, or for grants/scholarships/etc. We do not accept sponsorships from the fossil fuel industry.
Isn't it true that Shell or other companies in the fossil fuel industry are indirectly determining the UvA's research agenda?
We control our own research agenda, and it focuses on the transition to sustainable energy. I share staff and students’ concerns with regard to the climate, as does everyone who has read the IPCC report. As a university, as a public institution, we have a special responsibility – a duty to lead by example. It is vital that we make a collective effort to reduce our shared footprint. To that end, we adopted a comprehensive sustainability policy several years ago: we strive to promote sustainability by means of our research and education and have set clear targets in connection with reducing our own ecological footprint. Shell has no influence on this; the UvA and other universities always conduct their research on their own terms. Academic freedom and integrity must never be up for discussion.
Various action groups are demanding that universities cut all ties with companies like Shell. They feel that even renewable energy projects are nothing more than greenwashing. Why isn't the UvA ending the partnership?
We should always be vigilant about greenwashing: a situation where the industry uses us to put on a pretence of caring about the environment. I genuinely feel that this is not what is happening with the projects we are currently involved in – methane reduction, clean hydrogen, and so on. These projects make real contributions. Still, it's possible to find such cooperation objectionable: I get it. It is important that, for each new project or study, we continue to ask ourselves whether it contributes to the energy transition. I can imagine, for instance, that every new research proposal involving collaboration with Shell must first be sent to the UvA Ethics Committee for advice. That gives the Committee a chance to weigh the interests of sustainability, along with any other ethical aspects. And if the proposed project does not contribute to a sustainable future or is intended as greenwashing, we must simply say no.