"For us, student pressure is always going to be key to bringing Cambridge into a leading position in the climate fight"Louis Ashworth for Varsity

Every year in mid-January, the Cambridge Department of Chemistry holds the ‘BP Sustainability Lecture’, in which they invite a prominent international scientist to deliver a lecture on their work. The subject varies (and is rarely sustainability-related), but the lecture has always served to reinforce the idea that BP is a ‘sustainable’ business. In 2022, this lecture was not held, somehow forgotten among lockdowns and Zoom lectures, and this year in its place was the Chemistry Energy Transition Lecture, a similar event with BP branding nowhere to be seen.

“Now it’s time for the Chemistry Department to finish the job”

So, can we take from this that the BP Sustainability Lecture has been cancelled, or at least ‘decarbonised’? That the criticism directed at similar events in recent years — take the disruption of the Shell Lecture in 2018, or the protests at Schlumberger’s research campus — has been enough to force a pre-emptive move by Chemistry? Representatives from the Chemistry Department did not wish to comment, either on the motivations behind this move or as to whether the Department would continue its association with fossil fuel companies elsewhere within its walls.

But Sam and Vedika, students from campaign group Cambridge Climate Justice, see the move as a sign of progress. “At long last, the Chemistry Department has realised that the anti-science fossil fuel industry is no partner for a reputable scientific institution, and that a BP Sustainability Lecture is a contradiction in terms,” Sam says. “Now it’s time for the Chemistry Department to finish the job, and stop handing out BP-branded lab coats to undergraduates, reject fossil fuel funding for research, and refuse to advertise their careers.”

The move comes at a time of changing relationships to fossil fuel companies across the University. In 2020, the University Council pledged to divest its £3.5 billion endowment fund from fossil fuel companies, and just last summer the BP Institute (as it had been known since its founding in 2000) was renamed to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows (IEEF). In this light, the rebranding of the BP Sustainability Lecture looks like the latest step along a path that walks away from fossil fuel companies. Vedika is hopeful, but wary of the size of the task ahead: “Momentum is definitely building for climate action at Cambridge University, but this is only the beginning. For us, student pressure is always going to be key to bringing Cambridge into a leading position in the climate fight, and we’ve got plenty left to address.”

If the task is to truly evict fossil fuel companies, then Vedika is not wrong. These links permeate throughout the University, from careers fairs to professorships, lecture rooms to hardhats. They permeate too throughout time. The Chemistry department, for example, has been taking oil money for more than 100 years; in 1919, the department received an endowment of £150,000 from three British oil companies. This would be worth over £9 million today. With this longer view, the presence of fossil fuel companies across campus starts to look less like an accident of the past few decades, or even a recent move by these companies to improve their public image, and more like a foundational relationship for both partners.

“The stakes are simply too high to risk the distorting force of dirty money”

It’s also worth looking at the details of these public dissociations. In Chemistry, while the BP branding has been dropped, there’s no sign of, for example, a commitment to refuse funding for research. In 2019, when the BP Chair of Chemistry was renamed to the Yusuf Hamied Chair, the department said that BP would “continue its association with the department”. We can only assume that the same will be true with the lecture. Similarly, while the IEEF is no longer named for BP, it is open about continuing to receive funding from them. So there remains an important distinction: the University may be willing to publicly distance itself from fossil fuel companies, but what are the implications when the money is still coming in, just not as visibly?

Sam offers his perspective on why fossil fuel companies buy into research centres like those in Cambridge, beyond improving their brand, or ‘greenwashing’: “It also gives them access to research. Environmental research is especially vulnerable to the influence of fossil fuel money. It’s essential that research on the most critical issue of our time is totally free of the influence of the industry that created it.”


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On this, even University officials seem to agree. On the renaming of the BP Institute, Professor Andy Neely, senior pro-vice-chancellor for enterprise and business relations, said that the change was intended to “better reflect the research carried out at the IEEF and be clear about its independence”, a sort of backhanded admission that fossil fuel sponsorship is a threat to the public trust in science. This concern is not unfounded; a 2022 Nature study found that energy research centres that were funded by fossil fuel companies had a more favourable attitude towards gas as an energy source, where publicly-funded research centres favoured solar and wind.

“In the same manner that we’ve accepted for years that tobacco companies shouldn’t fund cancer research, fossil fuel companies shouldn’t fund climate research,” says Vedika. “Cambridge is the wealthiest university in Europe, it can and must find alternate funding sources. The stakes are simply too high to risk the distorting force of dirty money.”

Towards the end of last year, 84 members of Regent House proposed a Grace at the University Council which would have severed the University's research links with fossil fuel companies. It proposed prohibiting Cambridge from receiving research funding or sponsorship from, and collaborating with, the industry.

A vote on the Grace has been delayed to later this year, pending the conclusion of a study commissioned to look into the impact this change would have on the running of the University. This cautious approach seems to be the University’s default, at least with respect to climate issues. But maybe the cancellation of the BP Sustainability Lecture is a portent of what’s to come, the first horse out of the gate as the University begins preparations for life without fossil fuel companies.