[Column] Higher purpose

Conducting research with petrochemical companies is acceptable if it supports the climate goals, says Monique van der Veen. But what should we do about intellectual property?

Monique van der Veen: “If you are concerned about polarisation at all, then assuming that ‘I am the problem’ is a very good option.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

I once went on a date that went really well, but I was turned down for a second date because I had said that I would not join an anti-Trump march. That was shortly after he was elected. Protest marches, however useful they can be, are not my thing in general. I would rather write columns where I have the space to be nuanced.

In May, Extinction Rebellion and University Rebellion protested (in Dutch) on the campus of TU Eindhoven, demanding that the university break all ties with the petrochemical industry. At first sight this sounds quite reasonable. And I would say that it would probably be better if we did not do research into how we can extract oil from the earth’s crust more efficiently. It would be better if TU Delft would look critically to ensure that this kind of research is not done here anymore.

I do choose to work with petrochemical companies if the research helps achieve the climate goals of the Netherlands and the European Union. Such as in the area of carbon capture which is then stored or converted into fuel or other useful chemicals. This may also generate the necessary discussions, but the fact is that it is part of the plans that the Netherlands and the EU have to achieve the climate goals. The more energy efficient we can make the process, the better it can help to reduce CO2 emissions.

You then see that many TU Delft academics who are involved in technology to achieve the climate goals, such as in the large flagship programmes in areas like Release and E-refinery, do work with petrochemical companies.

In the end, you need to judge companies on their actions

My concern is the accessibility of the intellectual property that emerges from this research. After all, you want any entity that wants to use the new technology to be able to do so. Petrochemical companies themselves say that for them this is not an area that is decisive for their competitive postion, and that they are therefore not interested in having the exclusive rights to technology.

But in the end, you need to evaluate companies on their actions and not on their words. I see that it is really easy to work in these projects with several different petrochemical companies at the same time. This was completely impossible before. So far, it looks like words and deeds match each other.

But I also see an important task for TU Delft here. The technical universities in the Netherlands are increasingly interested in generating income from intellectual property rights. And there are strong arguments to support this. However, given the societal function of universities, the higher purpose for society should take precedence.

In this case, we should make sure that technology that helps achieve the climate goals should be used as widely as possible. It does not have to be free – accessible licences are fine. As researchers and employees of TU Delft, we cannot take any decisions regarding agreements about intellectual property rights. This is entirely in the hands of the deans and – once above a set project amount – by the Rector Magnificus. They should include a licencing model in their decision-making instead of negotiating for sole rights with companies.

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen

Monique van der Veen / Columnist

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