Open letter: ‘NWO and KNAW should be more critical of fossil industry’

NWO and KNAW need to be more critical of collaboration with the fossil fuel industry. This is the opinion of 450 employees of 13 universities and 11 research institutes.

Criticism against TU Delft's ties with the fossil industry was also expressed at the Dies on 14 February 2023. (Photo: Rob van der Wal)

“While the effects of climate change are visible everywhere and are increasing in severity, fossil fuel firms openly prefer shareholder profits to credible climate policies”, scientists and other employees write in an open letter. “Records of corporate wrongdoing and harm by the fossil fuel firms are clear and publicly available.”

The letter is from Scientists for Future NL, an alliance of scientists that are taking a stand for the climate. Among the signatories are researchers from all kinds of fields, including dozens of professors, also from TU Delft.

In the past year, activists occupied locations at several universities, including those in Rotterdam, Eindhoven and Delft, and the University of Amsterdam. They demand their universities cut ties with the fossil fuel industry.

This letter appears to have the same intent, but worded a bit more subtly. “We appeal to KNAW, as the voice and the conscience of science and to NWO, the most important science funding body in the Netherlands, to critically evaluate collaboration between researchers in the Netherlands and the fossil energy sector”, the open letter reads.

In a press release from Scientists for Future, TU Delft professor of applied physics Sander Otte adds there can only be cooperation if the fossil industry reduces greenhouse gas emissions. “Only when that is met can we cooperate on technological innovation.”

Earlier cooperation, he says, “contributes to the misleading narrative that the climate crisis can be solved with innovation alone”. “This implicit endorsement can be used by companies as an excuse to further delay scaling down their polluting activities.”

‘Unmistakable policy’
The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences is a society of leading scientists, at one time presided over by outgoing minister Robbert Dijkgraaf. KNAW advises the Cabinet on science policy, but also has twelve scientific institutes.

So far, no fossil fuel firm complies with these criteria’

Research funding body NWO accepts applications across a range of programmes from scientists looking to fund their research plans. A successful application to NWO is often decisive for a career in academia. Furthermore, NWO has nine scientific institutes.

The signatories are asking for “unmistakable policy”. Close collaboration with the fossil energy sector should only be allowed if companies are demonstrably committed to combating the climate crisis. “So far, no fossil fuel firm complies with these criteria, which means that we cannot and do not want to collaborate with such companies until they do.”

KNAW and NWO are already doing a number of things. For example, they are embracing the recommendations from an advisory report on more effective climate research. KNAW is making a case for the new discipline of planetary health.

At the same time, both organisations are careful when it comes to ties with the fossil fuel industry. They don’t want to curb the academic freedom of scientists or believe that collaborations could also bring about a greener society (in Dutch).

That’s not enough for Scientists for Future. In science, employees don’t have good guidelines for dealing with fossil energy companies, says a spokesperson. As policy is lacking, employees are constantly forced to take their own decisions about collaboration. “That fragmentation makes science as a whole vulnerable to greenwashing and that’s bad for our credibility.”

NWO and KNAW only just received the letter. They have announced they will be responding later this week.

HOP, Bas Belleman
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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