UG won’t swear off fossil ties

Dealing with the devil

The UG is establishing rules for collaborations with the fossil fuel industry. Do these provide a clear conscience, or will they lead to new problems? ‘Companies will always try to exploit the good impression that you’re making.’
21 May om 21:21 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 May 2024
om 13:58 uur.
May 21 at 21:21 PM.
Last modified on May 22, 2024
at 13:58 PM.
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Door Ingrid Ştefan

21 May om 21:21 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 May 2024
om 13:58 uur.
Avatar photo

By Ingrid Ştefan

May 21 at 21:21 PM.
Last modified on May 22, 2024
at 13:58 PM.
Avatar photo

Ingrid Ştefan

‘In search of the coveted safer, better, longer-lasting battery’, read the headline above a press release the UG wrote at the beginning of last year about its participation in BatteryNL, a consortium aiming to develop an improved battery within eight years.

That sounds promising, of course: it could make electric cars a bit greener. But one of the other partners partially funding the project is Shell. And collaborations like these  have been under scrutiny since the climate action group Extinction Rebellion highlighted them and called on universities to sever ties with the fossil fuel industry.

The UG is involved in more projects like this. For example, Waterstof Werkt, an initiative exploring hydrogen as a new energy carrier. This project is co-funded by Shell, GasTerra, Gasunie, and NAM, among others. There’s also the D-Carbonize research on biocarbon-based polymers, co-sponsored by TotalEnergies.

And it’s not only about research. Other collaborations include guest lectures, like at the energy transition executive MBA, or even funded chairs. 


When it comes to fossil fuel sponsorships, the UG is not that big of a player. Since 2011, it has been involved in forty-one partnerships with the industry, compared to Utrecht University’s eighty-one, according to the national database Mapping Fossil Ties. And of the 167 active research sponsorships Shell has with Dutch universities, the UG is part of only three (as of February 2024), while TU Delft, for example, is involved in sixty.

There’s no culture at the university to be open about such partnerships

Still, the university cannot go on as it has. Last June, the University of Amsterdam already came up with stricter criteria that fossil fuel companies have to fulfill. Utrecht University established new conditions for collaborations last July. And now, after nearly a year of deliberating, the UG follows suit. This month, the university council will discuss a proposed set of rules that determines what goes and what doesn’t.

The rules 

  1. For now, ‘fossil industry’ is defined to comprise all companies that are active in fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) extraction (~ ‘upstream’ activities).
  2. The cooperation relates to the development of knowledge, technology, and insights that primarily contribute to meeting the (inter)nationally set climate goals.
  3. Cooperation with a (consortium of) societal party (or parties) must enable a substantial contribution to the climate transition. In particular, projects aimed at the three crucial transitions are eligible: from fossil to renewable energy, from fossil to non-fossil raw materials, and from linear to circular use of fossil raw materials. 
  4. Societal parties wishing to use or enhance UG’s energy transition expertise agree to publication of their name and the magnitude of their contribution on a public UG web page. 
  5. Research results are published Open Access. Companies can acquire rights to patentable outcomes in accordance with the current EU state aid framework. The UG always includes an anti-shelving clause in the agreement. 

They are based on the Faculty of Science and Engineering’s policy that was developed last year and aim to align partnerships with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Fossil fuel ties will be accepted only if the project fulfills these conditions, as evaluated by a committee that will be set up. 

Right direction

Professor of atmospheric composition modelling Wouter Peters is happy with the guidelines. ‘They’re very reasonable, and in fact quite comparable to our own considerations, as researchers, when making our judgement’, he says. 

Bert Scholtens, too, thinks they are a first step in the right direction. ‘There’s no culture at the university to be open about such partnerships’, says the professor of sustainable finance and banking. He does expect concrete assurances regarding the disclosure policy. 

But Machiel Mulder, professor of energy economics and programme director of the energy transition executive MBA, feels it may even be too much. ‘I fully agree with the last two criteria; transparency about contacts and funding is crucial for doing independent research’, he says. 

We won’t be able to research the functioning of fossil energy markets

The rest is too restrictive for him. Even though he’s an environmentalist, refusing to get a car or travel by plane, he thinks limiting research to the energy transition only is not the way to go. 

‘The second and third criteria mean that we won’t be able to do any research related to the efficiency of exploration and production of fossil energy, or the functioning of fossil energy markets’, he says. ‘Such knowledge is still relevant for understanding the effectiveness of climate policy.’ 

A policy wasn’t even necessary, Mulder argues. ‘I don’t see any issue with these ties because we are all using fossil energy all the time.’ That’s why it’s the government’s job to regulate the fossil fuel industry, he says. 


Henk Moll, a retired professor in natural resources for sustainable production and consumption, feels the guidelines lack clarity. Take the use of the word ‘substantial’ to describe an appropriate contribution to the energy transition, he explains: ‘Does that refer to the financial contribution of the company, or to the potential effects?’ If it’s the latter, one project can’t have that much of a noticeable impact, he thinks. 

If that is the case, do we even need these ties to the fossil industry?

Definitely, Mulder says. Because no matter how small the contribution is, everyone needs to participate in the energy transition. ‘Universities can help these companies in making this transition, they can develop technologies to become more energy efficient’, he explains. ‘So, in the end, these relationships are a good thing.’

‘If you want to influence the world, you have to be part of it’, agrees Caspar van der Wal, professor of physics in quantum devices.

Expediting projects

Besides, says Peters, the fossil fuel industry can expedite projects like the one he’s currently working on as part of the Waterstof Werkt initiative. ‘We had an unofficial contact at Shell through a conference. He heard our idea and said Shell could easily fund it. So there were no big proposal rounds or competitive funding; it was just a few pages with our ideas and then we got the funds.’

It was just a few pages with our ideas and then we got the funds

Even without any official guidelines, the scientist had a lot of prerequisites for the sponsorship, he says. ‘A strong condition for us to consider it was that we would be absolutely independent.’ No questions asked, no veto rights, no claim on the research results or the technology: Shell just pays and listens. ‘We wanted to do the research that we had planned, no strings attached.’ 

But, asks Moll, what about the long-term consequences of these partnerships? After all, it’s not only about the direct relationships, but about the network structure you’re part of as a researcher and the line of reasoning that it creates, he explains. ‘You’re operating in a broader context and that may have some intangible influences.’ It serves the long-term survival of the company, for example.

Moll, too, participated in research sponsored by the fossil industry in the 90s and early 2000s. Back then, there was no discussion about the ethics of it and there were certainly no guidelines, he says. You should always consider the time, because with the knowledge of today, I might have made other decisions.’


Can the rules the university council is going to discuss really absolve the university of the moral implications of its fossil fuel ties?

The easy answer is no. ‘Some moral risks may partially remain’, Moll explains. It can help companies with greenwashing, for example, where it sponsors research to bolster its green image. 

‘Companies will always try to exploit the good impression that you’re making. Our friends at Shell, for example, are guilty of that’, admits Joost Frenken, dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering. But that’s a small price to pay compared to the benefits, he argues. 

‘Ethical implications are at the basis of the document. I think the research that we do is never completely in isolation’, he says. The best one can do, Frenken thinks, is to direct such research as much as possible towards immediate, positive consequences for our society.

‘Either we make a good impression or we make a positive impact on the transition to a greener technology and lower heating of the planet’, he says. While other universities chose the former, by forbidding certain companies, the UG is proud of its decision to evaluate collaborations, rather than companies. 

‘If the benefits are big enough, then we should do it. Because we’re not selling out to the devil. And that’s the most important.’