The group ‘This Is Not a Drill’ graffitied their logo outside the broken doorAnastasia Perysinakis

Climate change activists broke windows at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (CEB) in the early hours of Sunday (29/01).

The activists responsible, part of the recently formed group “This Is Not a Drill” cited the department’s ties to fossil fuel companies as well as alleged lobbying by “fossil fuel funded scientists” within the department to prevent a proposed vote to cut ties with fossil fuel companies.

While no research into fossil fuel extraction is conducted by the department, a number of researchers within the department do receive funding from fossil fuel companies. The department also funds a professorship named after the oil company Shell, which also helped fund the initial founding of the department in 1945.

In addition, the department’s teaching consortium, a group of companies affiliated with the teaching provision of the department, include a number of oil companies including ExxonMobil which gives annual lectures on safety and business to undergraduates taking the Chemical Engineering tripos.

The vote referred to by the activists was delayed in October by the University Council, who instead commissioned a report into the impact of the proposal citing a need to “explore, and give proper consideration to, the full implications of these changes”. No member of the CEB sits on the University Council.

In a discussion held as part of the research for the University Council report, a number of academics from the department spoke out against the plans. The head of the department professor Clemens Kaminski, while noting the urgency of the climate crisis, spoke against the proposal, listing a number of projects in the department related to decarbonisation. Kaminski argued that these projects, funded by fossil fuel companies, would not exist if the changes passed including projects for CO2 storage, development of low carbon synthetic fuels, low energy building design; and development of green ammonia and green hydrogen. A number of other academics from the department were also present to speak in favour of Kaminski’s statement.

In full: Statement from Professor John Dennis, Head of the School of Technology and Professor Nigel Peake, Head of the School of Physical Sciences.

On Saturday 28th January, the doors of the University’s Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology building in West Cambridge were smashed by people wearing balaclavas. Graffiti was daubed outside the building. Police were informed. This was the latest in a series of senseless attacks on University property.

Alongside many colleagues across the University, we strongly condemn this violent, criminal behaviour designed to intimidate and instil fear in our hard-working staff, many of whom are working on ground-breaking research which is designed to help us achieve the rapid energy transition needed to combat global climate change.

We welcome open, public debate on the big issues around climate change. However, this vandalism only serves to sabotage work that is focused on addressing the fundamental problems which must be solved if we want to make a real difference in global decarbonisation before temperatures rise beyond the 1.5C that is expected to trigger a cascade of greater catastrophic events on the planet. We can all agree on the need to urgently tackle these issues. Where there is disagreement is on how we fund and deliver the work to address climate change as rapidly as possible. The University is a place where multiple views are debated; not silenced by intimidation.

The University of Cambridge is committed to employing its world-leading teaching, research and network of global collaborations with other leading universities, governments and industry to support the transition to a zero‑carbon future. The urgency of climate change means that we must all work together to develop solutions to mitigate and repair the damage caused by burning fossil fuels. To many of us this means taking a pragmatic approach: developing replacements at a scale that can generate the energy the world needs without a sudden disruption to the global economy that would plunge billions of people into darkness and disrupt vital networks of trade and humanitarian work.

As part of this commitment to tackling climate change, the University currently collaborates with carefully chosen partners across the energy sector whose specialist skills, expertise and access to global markets can help significantly accelerate towards net zero. We believe that this gives University researchers access to data and expertise across a diverse range of engineering, chemical and technical disciplines on the kind of scale required to realise the tangible outcome of our research.

In June 2021, the University created an enhanced set of criteria for collaboration with energy companies, including a written assessment from non-conflicted experts on whether the purpose of the proposed collaboration contributes meaningfully to the energy transition.

These partnerships support vital world-leading research at Cambridge, which we are confident are critical to the energy transition, including:1)Battery technology to power the transportation of people and materials across oceans, roads and in the air and to store energy generated by sun, wind and other renewable power sources to use when those sources of power are unavailable.2)Solar energy to provide light and energy for appliances and industries all over the planet.3)Aviation technology to make zero carbon flight possible.4)Chemical processes to develop replacement liquid fuel and create industrial production free of petroleum products.

No donor directs the research at the University of Cambridge and researchers have the academic freedom to get on with their work as they see fit with all collaborators.

We are all proud of the researchers, staff and students who share the sense of urgency to tackle the practical and fundamental problems of climate change through education, research and other scholarly activities. These members of our community do not deserve to have their work obscured or be intimidated by vandals whose intentions are to sow fear and cause damage.

The inaccurate narrative that suggests the University is somehow “drenched in oil”, offers a hugely distorted picture of what is really taking place inside our labs and lecture halls, where the urgency of climate change infuses so many aspects of our work.

The University Council recognises that these issues should be discussed widely and has commissioned an independent report to look at the impact of not accepting research funding or allowing sponsorship or other collaborations funded by the traditional energy sector across a range of factors, from its impact on our ability to be a world leader in climate science to academic freedom. This is a vital debate, and it is essential that members of the Regent House and all those across the collegiate University engage with this debate and help determine how the University remains a world leader in the transition towards net zero, and in the technology and partnerships to help us towards that urgent goal.

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Professor John Dennis, former head of the department’s combustion group and head of the School of Technology had also spoken against this motion saying: “I do not believe the strategy of divestment, as outlined in the Grace, will have the slightest effect on that ultimate goal [decarbonisation]. In fact, it will make things much worse, because the reach and influence of the University will be rapidly diminished as the lifeblood is drained from its energy research.”

A spokesperson for the University emphasised that while these members of staff had spoken at this discussion, they were not lobbying on behalf of fossil fuel companies.

This is not the first such incident taken by the group. Similar action was taken last October against the Schlumberger research centre, with activists in the group shattering the front windows of the building. Members of the group also broke a rock-shaped advertising screen in the engineering department in November.


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A member of the group said in a press statement: “Companies like Shell and Exxon have profited from murder and the theft of land, and the University of Cambridge doesn’t just work with them - it actively protects them. If votes and conversations won’t change that, maybe direct action will.”

In a statement sent to Varsity, Professor John Dennis, Head of the School of Technology and Professor Nigel Peake, Head of the School of Physical Sciences described the act as a "senseless attack on University property." They add that "the university is a place where multiple views are debates; not silenced by intimidation."

They openly criticised narratives that the university is "drenched in oil", saying that "no donor directs the research at the University of Cambridge and researchers have the academic freedom to get on with their work as they see fit with all collaborators."