National Portrait Galler: Latest target as activists seek to reclaim our cultural institutions

Yesterday saw protests against oil or arms company sponsorship at the British Museum, the London Transport Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

As part of the Art Not Oil coalition, Science Unstained joined the latter, which was by far the largest event of the three – a major intervention to mark 25 years of BP’s sponsorship of the portrait awards – it also follows a theatrical protest at the British Museum Vikings exhibition last week, and a musical protest at the Southbank Centre the week before.

At the Portrait Gallery, 25 performers scattered throughout the building, joined by a crew of artists and rapporteurs. At 12:45 precisely, they simultaneously had oil poured over their faces in a dramatic protest to highlight the stain such sponsorship leaves not only on our great cultural institutions like the NPG but the work of artists, scientists, politicians, writers, activists, medics, musicians and others who are displayed there.

The Portrait Gallery and BP are ‘celebrating’ 25 years of their relationship. Art Not Oil’s “Twenty Five Portraits in Oil” performance supplemented that official narrative by highlighting 25 years of climate change. 25 years of spills.

Such protests are not new. Members of Art Not Oil have been protesting outside the Portrait Gallery for around a decade. But they do seem to be building in recent months. Earlier this year, Desmond Tutu called for action by ‘people of conscience’ against arts and sports programming sponsored by fossil fuel companies:

“Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing or doing much about climate change. Today we have no excuse. Companies responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up. They need persuasion from the likes of us [and] our cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry.”

As Art Not Oil argue, the award used to be sponsored by a tobacco company. We’ve moved away from them, why not oil? (and, to include our friends at CAAT outside the Transport Museum, the arms trade too?). John Sands of Art Not Oil said:

“Not long ago tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery. That is no longer the case. Fossil fuel companies are now being seen in the same light. The public is rapidly coming to recognise that the BP and Shell sponsorship programmes are attempts to buy a better image by companies with huge negative impacts on human rights, the environment and our global climate. Cultural leaders should simply stop accepting dirty money from oil companies to promote fossil fuels.”

Art Not Oil also draw attention to a recent infographic by Platform which shows what a small percentage of overall gallery income BP and Shell provide for the massive amount of free advertising and cultural capital such sponsorship allows them. It’s also worth noting the intersection between those with a ‘canny’ approach to tax planning and museum sponsors. If BP really want to support the arts and science communication, they could pay more tax. This goes for Micheal Hintze, Shell, BAE, Google and a host of other ‘philanthropic’ names.

We’ll leave you with a picture of one of the portraits in oil, next to another picture of a one-time scientist and active global leader for action on climate change (and, not to forget, big supporter of the oil and gas, if not coal, industry…).

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The rebranding of the Natural History Museum’s main hall

Last week it was announced that the Natural History Museum’s main hall would be renamed the Hintze Hall in recognition of a £5 million gift from British-Australian businessman and philanthropist Sir Michael Hintze. It is the largest single donation the Museum has ever received.

By ‘the main hall’ they do mean that big, iconic ‘Cathedral to Nature’ known the world over with Dippy the diplodocus in the middle.

By British-Australian businessman and philanthropist Sir Michael Hintze, they do mean the man who, in 2012, was revealed as a backer of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

It’s not quite the Koch gallery at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum (which is a real thing, and yes, concerns have been raised over the way the science is presented there) but the announcement did raise a few eyebrows. The museum can expect people to be keeping a very close eye on future gallery decisions and, at the very least, to see their brand as more than a little sullied by the association. It’s worth noting that the NHM’s press release says the money will also be put to scientific research. Scientific research into what exactly? And will Hintze have any role in directing it?

It’s not the first bit of a museum to be renamed after a major donor (Sainsbury, Ondaatje, Wellcome, Tate, Victoria, Albert…) but that doesn’t mean it is ok. A large part of the Natural History Museum is named after Darwin, but this was only a very, very long time after he died, and in recognition of his work and the role it plays in British scientific heritage. There’s a bit of the museum named after David Attenborough too, but again reflecting the massive popularity of someone who many credit for their love of Natural History (it’s funded by the Rufford Foundation). In comparison who is this Hintze guy? Someone with a lot more money than the rest of us. It is our NHM. Our science. Our heritage. Not his. It belongs to everyone. Why does he get his name on it?

The NHM are undoubtedly feeling the pinch like everyone else. But, please, if you are going to take money from someone who also funds climate change scepticism, don’t name the place after him. And if you really are going to sell off the good name of the Natural History Museum (which we shouldn’t) I’m sure we could have got a better price than £5 million.

But they shouldn’t be put in that position in the first place. What does it say about our government that – despite their continual assurances that they love and respect science – they can’t find enough resources to support this world famous hall and the research conducted around it without recourse to philanthropy?

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Lovelock and Shell at the Science Museum

On Wednesday, the Science Museum will be opening a new exhibition on James Lovelock. As part of the museum’s on-going Climate Changing Programme, it is sponsored by Shell.

If you are doing a Shell-sponsored series on climate change, it makes sense to run something on Lovelock. He has a reasonable good relationship with them, first working for the company in the 1960s. As he wrote in his 2000 book, Homage to Gaia:

“My experiences with Shell left me firmly with the impression that they are neither stupid nor villains. On the contrary I know of no other human agency that plans as far ahead or considers the environment more closely” (pp162-3 of 2000 edition of Homage to Gaia)

A post about the time James Smith and his wife Sandy had Lovelock round to tea on the run up to the 2009 Copenhagen talks is worth a look took. Note: James Smith is no longer Chairman of Shell UK, as he was in 2009, but he a trustee at the Science Museum.

The exhibition opens on Wednesday, coinciding with the launch of yet another new book by Lovelock. He’s an interesting man – not just in terms of the science he’s offered the world, but how he goes about it – and I’m sure the exhibition will be very interesting.

Until then, you might enjoy clips from what is arguably the largest cultural spin-off of Lovelock’s work, Captain Planet. Or you might like to read Amnesty’s cache of documents just released through Freedom of Information requests which show, in detail, how the UK intervened to support Shell and Rio Tinto in high-profile US human rights court cases, following requests from the companies. Or you could catch up on the detail of the BIS oil and gas strategy which has just turned a year old and, interestingly, includes an agreement from government to “consider its role in improving the public’s perception of the UK oil and gas industry” (page 25).

- Alice

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Food, Water, Energy, Climate… and Shell

A guest post from a member of Science Unstained

This week, I went to a public lecture on ‘Food, Water, Energy, Climate’.  The event aimed to unpick the complex interplay between these four issues, and discuss holistic approaches to how we might manage them in future.  Hosted by debate promoters Intelligence2, it was held in the historic lecture hall of the Royal Institution, which had inexplicably shrunk since I last visited it on a school trip.

A word from our sponsors

Before the talk, I was vaguely aware it was sponsored by Shell, but had largely overlooked this fact.  After all, oil companies seem to have their grubby logos on all sorts of things these days, from art galleries to science exhibits, but rarely seem to have any input on the content.  So I was surprised by what I found when the evening began.

I took my seat in the auditorium, and found a feedback form tucked into the programme.  After some unremarkable questions about how I enjoyed the event, I came across this gem of desperation:

I actually felt kind of sorry for the person who had the self-awareness of public perceptions about their employer to seriously include the final option, essentially asking “Have our past actions rendered us so irredeemably evil in your eyes that there is literally no way we could convince you we’re not utter bastards?”

A video then began playing, opening the proceedings.  A sketched animation, kind of cutesy but kind of slick, that looked like an advert for Innocent smoothies.  It had clearly been produced specially for tonight, structured around the inter-dependence of the ‘food / water / energy / climate’ strands.  And it soon became clear that the producer had quite specific ideas about the solutions to these challenges:   namely biofuels, eating less meat, and business efficiency.

At which point Shell enter the video, talking about their great work helping local businesses – in a town called Dawson’s Creek (which apparently is a real place in Canada), drawing peals of laughter from audience members who remember the 90s teen drama series of the same name.  Having dipped its toe in the PR water, the rest of the video freely promoted Shell, their community work, and their general efforts to address climate change and related environmental and social issues.

This rather awkward infomercial backfired somewhat when Jay Rayner began his talk, announcing with obvious displeasure that although he’d known the event was sponsored by Shell, he – and other panellists – felt it was “a bit cheeky for Shell to be promoting their good deeds”. This comment was met with a large round of applause from the audience, and a bit of squirming from the chair.

The panellists

Dr Gabrielle Walker was first up, saying some fairly uncontroversial stuff about the need for collaboration across borders and ‘systems-thinking’, to address global problems in a coordinated and effective way.

Jay Rayner was next, arguing that traditional green notions of food sustainability are flawed – that farmers’ markets and local food production aren’t a viable solution, but a luxury for the well-to-do.  Instead we need the economies of scale offered by supermarkets and industrial (but sustainable) agriculture, in order to feed the (future) 9 billion.  He supported GM crops, but only if they’re kept away from the likes of Monsanto and Dupont, who he saw as tarnishing GM’s otherwise good name.

Mark Lynas launched straight into an assault on the corners of the environmental movement that have demonised nuclear power and GMOs, asserting that the anti-GM have teamed up with pesticide companies to lobby governments.  He pointed out that bug-resistant crops reduce pesticide use, bringing huge health benefits for unprotected farmers in developing countries.

Mark Lynas’ “robust” response

In the Q&A after his talk, someone in the audience asked about terminator genes.  Lynas’s response was robust.  “THANK YOU [rolling his eyes and wheeling round on his heels], for raising the single biggest MYTH, about GMOs.  There are NNOOO sterile seeds, in AANY product in the world…”  (This comment may be almost true on a technical level, but wilfully ignores a lot of stuff going on with GM… but anyway.)

I then asked a question – in reference to Rayner’s comment about the big agri companies, I asked how we might unlock the potential benefits of GM, whilst navigating the challenge that the objectives of Monsanto et al may not always align with the needs of communities.  I pointed to the 300,000 Indian cotton farmers who reportedly commit suicide each year due to the pressure of owing huge debts to the seed companies.  I don’t have strong views on GMOs, and deliberately chose the most neutral and ‘reasonable’ language possible to avoid the criticism I anticipated.  It wasn’t enough.

“THANK YOU!  For bringing up the SECOND biggest myth about GM…”  He aggressively stated that suicides are in decline in India, and that rural suicide rates are comparable to those in urban areas.  (As well as being completely fucking callous, this didn’t really address my point.)  He said “Actually, GMOs REDUCE pesticide use, not INCREASE”, (which I’d never disputed), “Therefore IMPROVING health!”  (Surely a different issue to suicides?)  He then said that only a zealous ideologue, in collaboration with pesticide manufacturers, would ask such a question.  Building to a climax, he advised me to be RATIONAL, and refer to SCIENCE, instead of INTERNET MYTHS, in order to DISPASSIONATELY assess the topic.

The rest of the panel

I was actually so angry and taken aback at the way Mark Lynas had shouted at me that I couldn’t concentrate on a single word the final speaker said (Dr Jeremy Woods).  I was dimly aware of him arguing that local-scale biofuel production should be a key part of sustainable energy solutions.

I was disappointed to have missed it, because during the panel discussion at the end he came out with some very interesting bullshit.  He criticised a point made earlier by Walker that agriculture accounts for 70% of all fresh water consumption, demanding incredulously,  “If farming really used 70% of all the water, don’t you think all our crops would be pretty heavy???”

He also denied that biofuels compete with food crops for water in any way.  Rayner however pointed to studies on the food price spike of 2008, estimating 12% – 75% of price increases were due to the impact of biofuel production.  Woods replied, “Ah but that guy was misquoted, then realised his numbers were wrong anyway, and then retracted the article.”  Rayner insisted that in fact many articles had come to the same conclusion.  Woods just said “Well, yes OK.  But loads of other articles disagreed.”

A plea from our sponsor

Despite my frustrations (which I’ve probably unfairly over-emphasised), I did rather enjoy some of the witty and engaging presentations, and lively discussion.  Many questions from the floor at the end offered surprisingly critical perspectives.  An author of a book on climate economics argued we need to ditch economic growth to conserve resources;  someone else criticised supermarkets;  another asked about the lessons from small-scale urban agriculture in Cuba.  (“Well I certainly don’t want to live in Cuba, it’s an autocratic dictatorship!”  replies Lynas.  Er, yes, well spotted.)

After a few questions critical of large corporations and fossil fuels, someone queried whether Shell are part of the problem, or part of the solution.  Walker warned against taking binary viewpoints, and urged all parties to collaborate as part of global solutions.  At this point the chair jokingly pleaded in a rather strangulated voice, “Please, stop it, we need their funding for future events!”

Although this comment was clearly meant in jest, I do wonder what Shell will feel they gained from this event, and whether / how it will affect their future thinking on what activities they choose to sink their public engagement resources into.  I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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Letter in the Guardian: Big Bang Fair

Letter in Guardian

Science Unstained members are amongst signatories of a letter published in the Guardian today condemning the role played by the arms industry in science education events like the Big Bang Fair, which opened this morning and runs at the NEC until Sunday. Every year is different, but articles by Alice Bell and Stuart Parkinson of 2013′s Big Bang can give you a flavour of how the event works.

You can now add your name to calls to cut ties between the Big Bang Fair and the arms industry with a petition on 38degrees.

Here’s the full list of people who’ve signed the letter (alphabetical order, no titles). Thanks to everyone involved.

Jo Abbess
Jon Agar
Judith Anderson
Richard Ashcroft
Keith Baker
Chloe Baker
Sarah Bell
Alice Bell
Brian Beveridge
Sunil Bhopal
Mark Blaxter
Reiner Braun
Geraldine Brennan
Joady Brennan
Stewart Britten
Judith Burchardt
Chris Burns-Cox
Anne Chapman
Imti Choonara
David Colquhoun
Robin Ince
Ian Cook
Rachel Cottam
Alan Cottey
Jillian Creasy
Gail Davies
Emily Dawson
Lorenzo Di Lucia
Tim Dowson
Anna E Livingstone
Abbas Edalat
Maggie Eisner
Herbert Eppel
Helen Everett
Ian Fairlie
Gary Fooks
Andrew Feinstein
John Furness
Leo Garcia
Jenny Gibson
Lucy Gilliam
Anna Gilmore
Charmian Goldwyn
H Grant-Peterkin
Rupert Gude
David Halpin
Noel Hamel
Hamza Hamouchene
David Harper
Gwen Harrison
Brenda Heard
Emily Heath
Vanessa Heggie
Marion Hersh
Rebekah Higgit
Mae-Wan Ho
Emma Hughes
Westley Ingram
Lucas Wirl
Ruth Jarman
Dominick Jenkins
Victoria Johnson
Malcolm JW Povey
Ann King
Rhil Kingston
David Kirby
Sarah Lazenby
Richard Le Mare
Paul Levy
Simon Lewis
Rachel Lindley
Julie Lloyd
Sarah Lou Bailey
Andrew Manasse
Jeni McAughey
David McCoy
Youcef Mehellou
Mandy Meikle
Felicity Mellor
Harald Molgaard
Corinne Moore
Lesley Morrison
Eszter Nagy
Christopher Norris
Eva Novotny
Maria Olenina
Jonathan Oppenheim
Lindley Owen
Tim Oxley
Michael Parkinson
Stuart Parkinson
Doug Parr
Alison Payne
Laura Perry
Justin Pickard
Tomasz Pierscionek
David Polden
Megan Quinlan
Christine Range
Kate Rawles
Paul Redgrave
Mark Ruddell
John S Yudkin
Emma Sangster
Stephen Skett
Charlotte Sleigh
Andy Stirling
Melanie Strickland
Ursula Stubbings
RJ Tacon
Taavi Tillmann
Jude Towers Statistician
Trevor Trueman
Charalampos Tsoumpas
Guinevere Tufnell
Jill Vogler Retired
Penny Walker
Chris Walton
Elizabeth Waterston
Tony Waterston
David Wearing
David Webb
Robin A Weiss
Andrew Willson
Tristram Wyatt
Brian Wynne
Angie Zelter
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Update on NERC’s oil and gas centre

Last summer, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), our official body for environmental science, issued a call for expressions of interest to run a new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas research.

CDTs are important for building capacity in particular strategic areas for science and engineering. They offer space to fund research in a particular area – simply because you have the labour of the PhD students working on targeted research projects – but they also help researchers network and build collaborations for further work, and train people to go on to further careers in the area.  PhD students are useful things. They also deserve decent training and career development, which CDTs, done well, can offer. Several research councils have moved to this model, although some feel it’s a way of running cuts and a narrowing of research options under the banner of grand visions and career development for young scientists.

It’s interesting that, considering NERC’s number one strategic goal is “enabling society to respond urgently to global climate change”, that they’d lead their adoption of this slightly-controversial policy with a centre on oil and gas. As I wrote in a post for the Greenpeace Energy Desk last summer, it’d be simplistic to say they are using public money to run PhDs in fracking, but they are kind of using public money to do PhDs in fracking.

In response, Iain Gillespie, NERC’s director of science, told Research Fortnight in October that “Oil and gas are inevitably going to provide strong elements of our energy future for some years to come [...] There is a very clear need for us to apply environmental science in this space, and in not doing so we could arguably be accused of being irresponsible” which the magazine headlined as “NERC claims it can make oil industry greener”.

But there is a big difference in research exploring the environmental impact and regulation of oil and gas extraction and finding new ways to extract it. The research themes set by the call always seemed to be weighted to the latter.

Now larger details have been released it seems this runs through to specific projects on offer too. There are a few on environmental impact, but only a few. If you do want to do a government-funded PhD in fracking, there are possibilities at Durham, Manchester and Oxford, to name just three. It’s also worth having a look at the industrial sponsors of the Herriot Watt Institute of Petroleum Engineering, where the centre is based.

Back in October, Research Fortnight also spoke to Andrew Watkinson, former director of the Living With Environmental Change programme, who argued NERC were “obviously responding to the call from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.” Similarly, ex Defra chief sci adviser, Bob Watson asked “What is the role of government funding to stimulate the private sector? [...] Why does it need government money if it is really going to improve profitability?”

Why indeed?

 

– Alice Bell

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Silence of the Labs: Canadian Science

This video on the CBC documentary on Canadian science policy ‘Silence of the Labs’ is worth a watch.

Ignore the slightly over-egged “science will save us all” rhetoric at the start because this is a story worth listening to.

As Tom Duck of Dalhousie University puts it in the documentary, as they discuss how 2012 budget cuts stifled his work conducting climate monitoring in the Arctic:

“We know that climate change is an enormous problem, it is the problem for the next century, so if you want to get out your oil, you have to get it out now, if you want to get it now, you have to make sure the scientists aren’t causing any problems, if you want to make sure the scientists aren’t causing any problems you take away all their funding.”

In many ways, it is a story of a government happily sticking its head in the ground. They know that scientific research will give them bad news, so they try as hard as possible to stop the nation looking. Or, as Scott Findlay – biologist at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of the campaign-group Evidence for Democracy – told Nature this week, “One way to avoid using evidence in policymaking is not to collect it”

As well as the theme of anti-environmental science, the film reflects a willful, unjust and simply inaccurate nationalism of Haper’s science policy, discussing the ways in which narratives of Canadian national identity are being clamped down on, both in terms of research and public communication in museums.

It’s a really moving piece of film-making; moving in terms of concern for the natural environment it inspires you toward, but also moving in terms of the destruction of peoples’ careers. There are a series of shots of still labs, full of unused equipment which are just so depressing. Labs shouldn’t be so still. They should be full of people doing work to find stuff out.

There’s also the sense of long-standing damage to Canadian research, because intentional scholars won’t come back. This is something that should worry us all as Canada includes some crucial research sites where we do environmental monitoring of global importance (e.g. the Experimental Lakes is where we first found out about acid rain).

In terms of lessons for the global community, as well as Canadian science being something we should all care about, it’s worth nothing the line in this documentary about how, at least at first, the funding for science overall went up. It just got focused towards research that suited traditional ways of making money whilst slowing gutting anything that challenged the status quo. They weren’t anti science as much as very selective about the science they like.

Next time your science minister goes “look, money!” ask where it’s going, and where it’s not.

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Get the Shell out of Oxford

Shell’s recruitment team have been on the road since the beginning of term, catering their careers to potential graduates and showing their ability to engage highly competitive, young and eager students with their ‘Shell Ideas360′ competition.

 

I met Danny Chivers outside the University of Oxford’s Earth Sciences department were we joined Tar-Free Oxford campaigners as well as members of the local Green party to highlight Shell’s corporate whitewash during a protest to get Shell out of Oxford. Before I got a chance to begin a conversation with Danny, a police officer explained why there was such a heavy security presence, as just 24 hours ago three young activists had been arrested for vandalising a Shell recruitment stand before any peaceful protest had begun. The officer claimed these mischief-makers had smashed glass and damaged company ipads with black paint. There’s clearly a lot of local resentment against Shell’s relationship with the University.

Police declare Shell's recruitment stall a crime scene.

Danny, an Oxford graduate, is deeply concerned about his old university accepting funding from oil companies. When I asked him about how this might affect the research conducted there, he was more apprehensive about what research gets replaced due to Shell’s financial influences. Danny was a researcher for the UK Tar Sands Network’s report Two Energy Futures which details how we can power the world with existing clean energy technologies. The money (£5.9 million) contributed by Shell to establish the Shell Geoscience Laboratory at Oxford not only affects what is being researched at this prestigious university, but it conserves Shell’s social licence to operate.

Danny is keen to see more students in Oxford attend these events and highlight what Shell’s intentions are in sponsoring a research department. “There’s also a Shell presentation going on next door in the Geography department, we need to keep tabs on these events and ask difficult questions.” Danny pointed out that Shell and similar companies are quite vulnerable at these university events such as careers fairs. With a depleting young staff count, their brand is all they can offer to young, bright, highly influenced students. Recalling an occasion when BP hosted an elegant event at Oxford’s Randolph hotel, Danny explained, “It would do a lot more damage to their reputation to be seen dragging protesters out the door, so they let you say your bit.”

Shell are on a mission, they know the more sponsorship opportunities, the more credibility they will receive as leaders in industry, building strong relationships with respected universities. “They are building a mask and it’s time to take that mask off and challenge the sponsorship deals. If we swallow Shell’s business plan of making it’s fuel 60% renewable by 2050, this will be a disaster for our generation.” As this renewable fuel source will mostly rely on biofuels, we will still be heading on the same path to a 6°C warming. “In 20 to 30 years time, the whole world will be spiralling into environmental destruction and climate chaos if we don’t confront the fossil fuel industry now.”

Danny was there when Shell and Oxford University’s relationship began back in May with the opening of the Shell Geoscience Laboratory which included a special appearance from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate, Ed Davey. Protesters gathered outside the opening ceremony to stage a mock 2018 closing ceremony, with Shell representatives apologising to their shareholders for bursting the carbon bubble after their assets had been liquidated.

But surely the head of the Earth Sciences department knows the risks involved, I questioned Danny. “Yes, but they’re not thinking long-term, they’re choosing not to see.” With limited government support, securing private funding seems to be the only choice they have. For the sciences, the oil and gas companies are the ones providing these solutions with a not-so-modest ask in return – lot’s of investment, valuable credibility and Oxford graduate employees.

Campaigners from the local Green party were there, including Charlotte, a PhD student. Charlotte shared Danny’s disgust of Shell’s sponsorship of the Earth Science department – “Shell use this opportunity to snap up the best graduates, hindering research. Any bias in research created by big business is morally reprehensible.” When I asked about what she thought of students accepting funding for PhDs like her, but from sources such as Shell, Charlotte replied “It’s not the student, it’s the system.” Academics from less well off background will see this as an opportunity to get the education and credit they need to advance into a stable career. It’s the fossil fuel companies that are relying on the vulnerability of under funded institutions and the government who are desperately seeking to commercialise the UK’s higher education sector. “They are the ones we need to dispute.”

Students all over the UK are challenging their universities fossil fuel partnerships with People & Planet’s Fossil Free campaign. Knowledge & Power, a report written in collaboration with Platform, People & Planet and 350.org, outlines the relationship oil and gas companies have with universities and ways to confront these financial links.

Posted in education, Science, science funding, sponsorship | 3 Responses

My visit to the Science Museum

Science Museum Lates, an experience not to be missed. Nothing pleases me more than dancing to Daft Punk on borrowed headphones while trying to balance a beer and marvel at the space rockets hovering above my head. What could be more tantalizing than this? But then I remembered that tonight’s theme was assessing something quite serious in our lives, climate change.

Dancing at the silent disco.

Following a colour-coded map, I just about make it on time for some messy climate change related screen printing, followed by a silent disco detour to the Agriculture gallery for a demonstration on how solar cells work by experts from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London.

I’m overwhelmed by how well this is working. It’s a Wednesday night and there’s a museum packed full of young people concerned about how climate change is going to affect their future. We can appreciate that large institutions like the Science Museum is celebrating the search for solutions and reminding us of this serious issue.

With 30 minutes to spare, I make my final pit-stop at the Science Museum’s permanent exhibit exploring climate science, Atmosphere. I become engulfed in the many interactive installations this gallery has to offer; from games to help you understand climate science to a meteorological dance mat. This is how learning should be all of the time.

But something quite contradictory stuck out like a sore thumb as I entered the exhibit and picked up a leaflet, something that clearly shouldn’t be found in a climate science gallery. However, there it presented itself, the undoubtedly recognizable Shell logo.

So Shell is one of the principal sponsors of the  climate change gallery in the Science Museum. A company who have been brought to court on several occasions due to their oil spills in Nigeria leading to poisoned fish ponds and farm land. Shell is one of the world’s most carbon intensive oil companies, emitting 84 million tonnes of carbon in 2011, which is more than the emissions of 176 countries in the world.

My inspiration by the fact that that the Science Museum had introduced climate science into a new social environment, had turned into frustration and anger. We’re seeing an oil company form an illusion of being concerned about our atmosphere when in fact its business is thriving on the lack of tighter global climate legislation.

This is greenwashing at it’s worst.

Professor Chris Rapley who, until 2010, was director of the Science Museum and who sealed this partnership with Shell said; “Shell is a great supporter of the Science Museum, and advocate for the work that we do. Our collaborative partnerships with Shell have been invaluable in enabling the Museum to make tremendous strides in helping our audiences’ make sense of the science that shapes our lives.”

In September 2010, Shell spent over £3m on climate science education within the Science Museum. A sponsor’s aim is to support an event in the hope of improving its brand’s image. I’m pretty sure Shell hasn’t chosen to sponsor the climate change exhibition to tell people that their business is destroying the planet, so what information are they allowing to be shared with the museum’s visitors?

In an interview with Sciencewise, Chris Rapley, now Professor of Climate Science at UCL stated the importance of the Science Museum’s neutrality with climate change. “We decided this time to focus on the story of climate science, which is a fascinating and legitimate story regardless of whether humans are changing the climate.” This comes after controversy over the Museum’s 2009 exhibition, Prove It! which provided evidence supporting man-made climate change and asked visitors to send a message of support to the UK negotiating team at the Copenhagen climate change talks. People rejected the idea of being told what to think about climate change, which led Rapley to taking a more neutral approach in engaging people in the science of climate change, so that visitors could form their own opinion.

But I have to ask, how neutral is choosing Shell as a sponsor for a climate science exhibition, whose lobbying campaign cleared the way for Arctic oil drilling? Is this the message Professor Rapley wanted to send to his guests of the Science Museum? Climate change may or may not be real, but Shell has our backs? Maybe we should ask him to Prove It!

This is the first part of a series of blogs about  private sponsorship of science education. Next, we are going to examine how climate science is being communicated in the Science Museum under the influence of private funding from Shell.

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Scientists for Global Responsibly newsletter

BAE systems toy

Squishy “stress revealer” submarine toy given out at Big Bang Fair.

This piece originally appeared in the Autumn 2012 Newsletter of Scientists for Global Responsibly.  

You might have heard of the Big Bang Fair. A major part of National Science and Engineering Week, it attracts tens of thousands of schoolchildren every year. It’s run by Engineering UK in partnership with various science and engineering organisations, but supported by a host of industrial sponsors, one of which is BAE Systems. It’s tempting to crack a joke about arms manufactures knowing their big bangs – except that glamorising weapons isn’t funny.

When a peace campaigner stumbled across the event last spring, she found that BAE had more than just space for a logo, it had stall where they were handing out toy submarines. Disgusted by this and several of the other stalls she spotted, she posted a gallery of pictures online, commenting “basically it’s an arms fair for children with a bit of environmental destruction thrown in for good measure”. If the Big Bang Fair makes you uncomfortable, you might want to avoid the Science Museum. Their Energy Futures gallery was sponsored BP; their content on climate science bares a Shell logo.

I’m not necessarily against the corporate sponsorship of science communication. I’d rather such things were funded through taxation, but I’m also pragmatic. I paid my way through university with a job at the Science Museum, staffing several of the sponsored galleries and events. I judged last year’s Google Science Fair. I’ve written for newspapers that carry advertising. I didn’t feel limited by any of these sponsors. In fact, I loved sharing Capital FM’s old equipment with schoolchildren in the Science Museum’s old hands-on radio gallery, and I thought Google used its brand effectively to connect teenagers with some inspiring ideas. It’s worth noting the Science Museum’s collection has roots in the old Patent Office museum; that’s where they obtained Stephenson’s Rocket. Industry is part of science and, when you can tap into it, holds a lot of expertise.

But there are questions to be raised about who is involved in what science communication, as well as the nature and transparency of deals with publicly funded institutions. There’s been a fair amount of critique of the sponsorship of the arts in recent years, with groups like Liberate Tate and Reclaim Our Bard drawing particular attention to the role of oil money in galleries and theatre. And yet, there’s been little activism around science in public culture. There was a press release from Scientists for Global Responsibility and Campaign Against Arms Trade condemning BAE’s involvement in the Big Bang Fair when it first launched in 2009, but that’s about it. Mention the Science Museum to environmental activists and they’ll refer to the Shell sponsorship with some distain, but you are much more likely to find them on the roof of the National Gallery.

Perhaps this is due to the same reason science museums also complain it’s hard to get sponsorship: science lacks the mainstream sparkle of arts. At best, kids’ stuff, at worst a bit esoteric and dull. I also suspect it’s caused by a lack of political awareness (let alone active critique) within the science communication profession, and within much of the scientific community at large.

What science lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in allusions to authority, openness, honesty and rigour. There’s a reason shampoo adverts carry a science bit, and I’m not sure I want public institutions to be used to provide such ethos. I also worry that, especially in an age of creeping cuts, science communication professionals will avoid working on anything too critical or controversial, lest they put a future crucial sponsorship deal at risk. I worry corporate PR ends up capturing a lot of publicly funded creative endeavour, initially financed through science or culture budgets.

Done well, the public communication of science is more than feeding knowledge to the masses and ensuring the next generation of undergraduates (though that’s important too). It’s a chance to take research out of its bounded ivory towers and enrich it with a broader perspective. It’s a chance to think about the science we do, why and how. It’s a chance make the science we want, not just blithely pass on the science we’ve been given. It has incredible transformative power. And the UK is a world leader in the field. We spent a few hundred years building some amazing science communication institutions. That’s a precious resource.

Science communication needs to see industry as more than just moneybags; to stand up for itself, and use sponsorship deals as a chance to further open up industry to public discussion, appreciation and scrutiny. Science communication needs to use industry, not be used by it. We all need to be asking questions. Otherwise, who is sponsoring whom exactly?

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