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Ethics committee to universities: oil research can be unethical

The Norwegian committee on research ethics tells institutions that oil research, often sponsored by the industry, is ethically irresponsible if it contradicts UNs climate targets.

After months of deliberation over the ethics of petroleum research, the statement from The Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) is ready. Their powerful conclusion could shift the priorities of research institutions across the oil-dependent nation: if petroleum research hinders the transitions necessary to reach the UNs climate goals, such research is ethically irresponsible.  

The statement from NENT comes after a debate started at the University of Bergen (UiB) in the autumn of 2013. A group calling itself “Fossil Free UiB” was formed in the wake of protests against the renewal of a sponsorship deal with Norwegian oil giant Statoil, and sparked a wider debate about the ethics of collaborating with the petroleum industry and petroleum research in general. When the debate gained wider currency and support both among staff and students, the head of the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen, wrote to NENT for their advice on the matter.

North Atlantic oil platforms. Photo: Arne List. Some rights reserved.

NENT is an advisory body on research ethics, which provides counsels and recommendations concerning concrete research projects. They decided to lift the debate to a national level, and asked all the Norwegian universities to provide details of their involvement with the petroleum industry and their wider research on petroleum. They also requested a reflection on how this fitted into the universities’ wider strategy in relation to the realities of climate change. After several months deliberation, NENT’s assessment was ready last week, and makes for an uplifting read which expands the perspectives of the Norwegian debate. The statement is a clear and comprehensive message to the universities to take the lead on dealing with climate change, and spearhead the transition to a sustainable society.

The statement problematizes not only industry relations, but also the extent to which resources are channelled by government priorities. There is, they write, a real danger of a “vacuum of responsibility” where neither the government, the bodies that fund research, nor the universities have taken the responsibility to assess the overall picture. They also find it “striking” that the universities have failed to reflect on their potentially conservative role in collaborating with the petroleum industry. That there is no overview available of the extent of this collaboration, the amount of money entailed or the structure of the funding, is equally a cause of concern.  

Out of all the universities asked for details on their industry collaboration, the Norwegian Universities of the Life Sciences is the only one with an extensive and explicit strategy for contributing to sustainable development. They are also the only one without any direct involvement with the petroleum industry. 

In their replies to NENT, several of the other universities have tried to justify their petroleum research by referring to the growing demand for energy globally, referring to prognoses that fossil fuels will continue to be an important part of the mix. They fail, however, to view this in a larger perspective on the social, ecological and economical consequences of a development that fails to meet the UN climate target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees or less. Another common trope is that competence related to petroleum can be transferred to the renewable sector. Why they cannot immediately start this transfer rather than delay it by several years, is far from clear. NENT, on the other hand, asks that the petroleum industry and collaborations must be about transition, not to continue on the current path.  

Several of the questions NENT ask are relevant far beyond the borders of Norway:  

What are the most important challenges we are facing with regards to the knowledge we have about climate change, and how do we meet them? Are the universities contributing to the current unsustainable development, or are they constructive actors that can alter this direction? What place should research that contributes to prolonged petroleum dependence have in our institutions? Does collaboration with the petroleum industry bind up too much intellectual capacity and competence? Does research funded by the petroleum industry legitimise a notion that a transition is not urgent?[1]

These are not questions for a committee on research ethics to answer alone, but for universities nation- and worldwide to consider carefully and respond to in a responsible, reflected manner. In light of current climate realities and probable scenarios for development, it is imperative that flows of money and intellectual labour are channelled towards solutions rather than deepening the crisis through continued dependency on fossil fuels. This responsibility lies with the whole research community; management, departments, staff and students. A particularly large part of the responsibility lies with those who most influence and control the flow of money and research priorities. Yet, as the Norwegian debate has shown, groups such as the divestment movement can shift the terms of the debate and have a great impact on how our institutions face the realities of climate change. 

In parallel to the university debate, the investments of the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund (usually referred to as "the oil fund" domestically), the largest sovereign wealth fund on the planet, has been the topic of heated public debate. The fund is heavily invested in oil, coal and gas, but a combination of political parties, environmental groups, business commentators and other groups have pressured the government to rethink this strategy. In February of this year, they made a historical decision to create an independent commission to assess the consequences of divesting from fossil fuel companies. The report is to be delivered next year, and may lead to a significant shift towards sustainable investments in line with Norway’s ambition to lead on sustainability.   

NENTs statement potently frames debate by highlighting the ethical responsibility universities have to contribute to and not hinder sustainable development, and makes clear demands that invite further discussion and debate. Norwegian universities are set to continue these in the autumn, and can come to serve as examples to follow elsewhere: to reach the UNs climate targets, universities have a clear ethical responsibility not to contradict their own researcher’s knowledge, and accelerate their collective efforts to develop knowledge that aid a transition. If one of the world’s most oil dependent countries can dare to raise the debate, then others, such as the resource-rich and highly competent UK institutions, surely should be able to follow. 


[1] Author’s translation from NENT’s statement.

About the author

Ragnhild Freng Dale is a theatremaker and PhD candidate in anthropology at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. She is a former student at the Univerity of Bergen, Norway, and was active in the Fossil Free UiB group.


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