Letter to the editor

Why collaboration with the fossil fuel industry is a problem for research

Collaboration with fossil fuel companies is detrimental to TU Delft’s research, PhD candidate Davide Rega writes in this letter. “It is a matter of how we conceive our work.”

Climate protesters at the TU Delft campus in May 2023. (Foto: Thijs van Reeuwijk)

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In the context of the national debate triggered by the campaign of End Fossil: Occupy! (EFO) [1], a colleague at ChemE, Hugo-Pieter Iglesias van Montfort, wrote an opinion article which trivializes the evidence-based approach of the campaigners as idealistic and even authoritarian [2]. The very ‘protesters’ whose actions generated the current debate about the ties with the fossil fuel industry are accused of having no interest in that same debate. But how authoritarian would it be to have never had a discussion about it? He asks the campaigners two questions: what technologies and what organisations do they have in mind for the green transition? The full answers can be found in their manifesto.[3]


In brief, the matter for them is not what technologies TU Delft investigates, but whether the same technology is financed or not by fossil fuel companies. Crucially, we cannot entrust them with any carbon capture technology, because they would use it to offset growing extractions, going against all recommendations of the scientific community [4][5]. Indeed, there is massive evidence that these companies are unwilling to decarbonise.[6] We see it in their budgets [7], in their disclosed internal discussions [8], in the many class actions against them [9][10], even on their websites [11], and in their history of war against truth-seeking [12][13][14].


This also answers the question about what organisations: surely not the fossil fuel companies. Governments and universities should not wait for them and should take the lead themselves, because the profit motive of the fossil fuel industry is inherently in contradiction with the transition [15][16][17], unlike that of other industries which use but do not sell fossil fuels [18][19]. Moreover, the funds TU Delft receives from oil and gas companies (about 1% of all third party funds, as communicated to EFO by the Executive Board) are not enough for their substitution to constitute a problem for research, something people in my opposite camp and on the board agree on. Besides, EFO only wants to prevent new collaborations, not cancel current contracts.



‘The demands are based on mounting evidence and science’



A much more relevant argument against EFO demands is that the infrastructure and expertise of the fossil fuel industry are crucial to achieve a rapid transition to fossil-free chemical production [20], as paradoxical as this may sound and despite the fact that oil and gas companies are not even the main actors in the chemical industry [21]. This, in any case, does not mean that we can give to fossil fuel companies a blank cheque to decide everyone’s future, and it is rather an argument for nationalising them [15]. Indeed, as Professor Bernard Dam, a member of the e-Refinery board [22], admitted during the 5 April deliberation [23] researchers have no influence on companies’ strategies. During the EFO occupation, on the walls of Pulse you could read ‘we can’t afford to be naïve’. Every year that we spend endorsing the fossil fuel industry with our institution’s credibility [14], with the wishful thinking that they are going to ‘behave’ at some point, is one year less for actually decarbonising the economy, and, let’s not forget, one year more of lives taken by the raging climate crisis.


Finally, I would like to make a more general point. The demands of EFO are based on mounting evidence and science, and are indeed supported by many academics, including at TU Delft and Leiden University [24][25]. Yet, they meet firm opposition by others. Compared to the isolated scientific problems we face in our daily practice, it is much more difficult to realise that the collaboration with fossil fuel companies is, in fact, detrimental to our research. This requires us to lift our heads from fume hoods and codes to look at the planet as a holistic system, to engage with disciplines we are not trained in, such as history, social sciences and economics, and, in some cases, to question our own career choices.


We often miss the point that this is not just a moral issue: it is a matter of how we conceive our work as scientists. Shall we run experiments and calculations in isolation and passively accept the status quo, or shall we embrace science as a positive transformative force of world history? Are we bureaucrats of science or scientists? Modern science was born out of rebellion, when Galileo Galilei challenged a powerful institution whose dogma simply did not fit reality. He had to abjure to avoid the stake. Today, it would take much less courage to question the collaboration with the fossil fuel industry, whose strategies are simply at odds with science.


Davide Rega is a PhD candidate at the Department of Chemical Engineering, and an activist of Scientist Rebellion and End Fossil Leiden University-TU Delft. His research project is on highly porous materials called metal–organic frameworks, and focuses on their synthesis, gas adsorption properties and application as piezoelectric materials for mechanical energy harvesting.




[1] endfossil.com


[2] linkedin.com/feed/update


[3] docs.google.com/document


[4] iopscience.iop.org/article


[5] iisd.org/publications/report/navigating-energy-transitions


[6] priceofoil.org/2022/05/24/big-oil-reality-check-2022


[7] journals.plos.org/plosone/article


[8] theguardian.com/environment/2022/sep/17/oil-companies-exxonmobil-chevron-shell-bp-climate-crisis


[9] follow-this.org/shell-still-not-reporting-investments-in-renewable-energy-around-90-in-fossil-fuels


[10] clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/news/we-re-taking-legal-action-against-shell-s-board-for-mismanaging-climate-risk


[11] shell.com/energy-and-innovation/the-energy-future/shell-energy-transition-strategy


[12] climaterealityproject.org/blog/climate-denial-machine-how-fossil-fuel-industry-blocks-climate-action


[13] decorrespondent.nl/6262/reconstructie-zo-kwam-shell-erachter-dat-klimaatverandering-levensgevaarlijk-is-en-ondermijnde-het-alle-serieuze-oplossingen


[14] trouw.nl/opinie/academische-besturen-moeten-alle-banden-met-de-fossiele-industrie-verbreken


[15] currentaffairs.org/2021/11/what-would-it-look-like-if-we-treated-climate-change-as-an-actual-emergency


[16] nature.com/articles


[17] tandfonline.com


[18] mckinsey.com/industries/chemicals/our-insights/decarbonizing-the-chemical-industry


[19] sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii


[20] nature.com/articles


[21] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_chemical_producers


[22] tudelft.nl/e-refinery


[23] delta.tudelft.nl/article/deliberation-links-between-tu-delft-and-fossil-fuel-industry-i-have-adjusted-my-thinking


[24] actie.degoedezaak.org/petitions/universiteit-leiden-en-delft-verbreek-alle-banden-met-fossiele-bedrijven


[25] openletter.earth/addressing-the-elephant-in-the-lecture-hall-climate-education-now


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