The Science Museum has come under increasing pressure to break away from fossil fuel companies and their lucrative investmentsChristine Matthews / Geograph

Dr Emily Shuckburugh, Director of University climate change initiative Cambridge Zero, will speak at an event on climate change at the Science Museum on March 31st, despite a decision by environmental activist and writer George Monbiot to pull out. Monbiot criticised the Museum for its continuing sponsorship by fossil fuel companies BP and Equinor. Following Monbiot’s decision, comedian Robin Ince and environmentalist Mark Lynas have also stepped down from Science Museum events.

Cambridge Zero Carbon Society have followed Extinction Rebellion Cambridge in calling for Dr Shuckburgh to step down from the panel. A spokesperson told Varsity: “Fossil fuel companies align themselves with respected institutions like the Science Museum in order to gain social capital, and be seen as respectable businesses, rather than part of a dangerous, toxic industry”.

Zero Carbon emphasised to Varsity that Dr Shuckburgh’s decision to remain on the panel is related to the ongoing campaign for the University to cut its ties with the fossil fuel industry. A report from Zero Carbon in 2019 claimed that the University was promoting and supporting the industry, for instance by awarding academics with BP Chemistry professorships and Shell Chemical Engineering professorships. The University committed to full divestment by 2030 last October.

In 2019, Dr Shuckburgh’s appointment to Cambridge Zero was called into question as she was accused of having ties with oil exploration firm Schlumberger in 2013, although the Guardian subsequently withdrew “unfair implications about [Dr Shuckburgh’s] interactions with the fossil fuel industry” and apologised. However, it did become apparent that she had previously appeared multiple times to speak at BP affiliated events, giving climate science talks to masters students at the University's BP institute in 2012, 2015 and 2018. This led many climate activists to accuse the Cambridge Zero program of ‘greenwashing’ for the University’s fossil fuel investors.

Greenwashing is a term used to describe business practices that make a company or institution seem more environmentally friendly then they actually are, and while sometimes unintentional is more often a deliberate PR strategy.

The Science Museum Group (SMG) has been widely criticised for its receipt of sponsorships from fossil fuel companies. In 2018, 48 leading scientists signed a complaint compiled by campaign group Culture Unstained outlining how the SMG has breached its ethics policy by accepting sponsorships from Shell, Equior, and BP. These sponsorships include the STEM Training Academy, sponsored by BP, and Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery.

An investigation by the Guardian found that Shell used their sponsorship of the Atmosphere gallery to raise concerns with the Museum about how one element of the gallery appeared to “create an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell’s operations.” This referred to a part of the exhibition featuring an interactive exhibition examining waste in the context of climate change.

This contrasts recent decisions by other institutions to end similar sponsorships. In 2020, London’s Southbank Centre chose not to renew its membership deals with Shell. A year earlier, the Royal Shakespeare Company ended its sponsorship deal with BP, citing activism on the part of young people as driving this decision. Monbiot wrote on Twitter that fossil fuel companies “use these deals to sustain their social licence to operate.”

The influence of fossil fuel companies on the activities of the Science Museum extends beyond exhibitions. Culture Unstained obtained emails showing that Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the SMG, organised two events in late 2019 and early 2020 offering BP the chance to defend its business activities and sponsorship of the museum.

In an email addressed to all of the SMG’s 1,300 member workforce, he argued: “Whilst the global economy remains carbon intensive, the energy companies conduct extensive research into a wide range of new technologies to reduce our dependence, including carbon capture, fuel efficiency and alternative energy… I am very sceptical about the trite argument that such sponsorships are greenwashing.”

However, slides from the planned workshops between BP and the SMG reveal that BP plans to continue its production of oil and gas, and the company’s website reveals new extraction projects in the pipeline.


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Despite increasing renewables production, BP still plans on allocating $9 billion of its $13 billion capital expenditures budget into oil and gas production. Last year, BP failed to disclose its carbon footprint.

Despite this, Blatchford argued: “The major energy companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions to the urgent global challenge of climate change and we are among the many organisations that regard a blanket approach of severing ties as being unproductive.”

Dr Shuckburgh and Cambridge Zero were contacted for comment.