Divestment was a major mobilising issue for environmentalists in Cambridge until 2021Varsity


“Listen up BP, listen up Shell, take your cash and go to hell!” “The people, united, will never be defeated!”

These were just a few of the chants of protestors outside Senate House this term, calling for Cambridge University to end all ties with fossil fuel companies. The protest came less than two weeks after Varsity revealed that the Department of Chemical Engineering has ‘paused’ a scheme which gave oil companies a say over academic content in exchange for money. In February, the activist group This Is Not A Drill vandalised the department building.

Climate activism in the University has become increasingly  radical over the last few years. As undergraduate students continue to wear BP-branded lab coats, Cambridge science departments have only just begun to pause their quid pro quo arrangements with Big Oil companies. Pressure has been building on the University to sever ties with fossil fuel companies since, according to activists, collaboration allows them to influence important research into climate change. This follows a 2020 commitment from the University to divest endowments from fossil fuel companies– after sharing historic ties with polluting corporations such as Barclays, Schlumberger and Shell.

Academics remain deeply divided on the issue, disagreeing over the effect it would have on academic freedoms and the impact it would have on the climate crisis. English Faculty member Jason Scott-Warren, who operates as an activist for Extinction Rebellion, in a debate over a proposal to stop the University from receiving fossil fuel funding, told academics, “We should not be in any doubt by this stage that the fossil fuel industry is immoral; or that it is, to all intents and purposes, evil”.

“Fossil fuel funding is an invisible colonisation of academia”

Fossil fuel funding is an invisible colonisation of academic– peer-reviewed studies suggest that fossil-fuel funded research will produce findings biased towards the continuation of fossil fuel production. Rejecting funding in Cambridge’s STEM departments is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. Cambridge scientists have told Varsity that they are against proposed measures to limit fossil-fuel funding. Professor John Dennis, head of the School of Technology, said: “I do not believe the strategy of divestment... 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”. Similarly, Dr Alex Copley, from the Earth Sciences department, argues that interconnections in the global economy could “prevent Cambridge from engaging with many of the organisations which can affect positive change”.

This hits the crux of the issue. Many Cambridge students take energy access for granted– the most hardcore divestment activists (students and fellows alike) are ultimately in an extremely privileged position to tell us that we must revoke oil production’s social license and make our abundant energy unaffordable. It just isn’t realistic to immediately demand scientists to immediately reduce their funding when a cost of living crisis causes an ever greater pinch on our pockets, and with more immediate concerns dominating the forefront of most people’s minds.

Fossil-fuel free research is necessary, in spite of these entirely rational qualms of Science academics, as “greenwashing” Big Oil companies (although they are not intrinsically immoral or evil) hamper the prospects for independent research that are not obscured by commercial interests. But, again, the reliance of universities on funding from research bodies and industry partners poses complex challenges for Cambridge’s departments to navigate. But the pressure posed by climate activists is ultimately a net positive for driving forward university policy.

What I struggle to understand is what vandalism and violent protest will achieve in Cambridge– beyond decries from the mass media and University statements that criticise “senseless attacks” on their property. Healthy debate within an environment that tolerates all views is necessary: radical activism can often be unsubstantiated by science. PhD student Thomas Idris Marquant told me earlier this year that “I sometimes worry that my protesting peers do not always direct their praiseworthy passion to the most effective environmental solutions.” Thomas’ sentiment, I think, ultimately goes to show how the most radical forms climate activism (the type of which we seem to be seeing in Cambridge ever increasingly) can do more harm than good.



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When I first arrived at the Chemistry Department in October 2019, I was handed a lab coat proudly emblazoned with the BP sunflower logo. Wearing it made me feel complicit in the University’s acceptance of Big Oil money. As far as I know, these lab coats are still being handed out to freshers today – and yet this blatant support of BP only scratches the surface of the university’s ties to fossil fuel companies.

“It is only by severing all connections with fossil fuel companies that Cambridge can really claim to be supporting sustainable research”

While the University as a whole has committed to fully divest from fossil fuels by 2030, there are many connections that evade this definition of ‘divestment’, such as the ongoing association of the careers service with the oil and gas industry, as highlighted by Varsity last year. I have had personal experience of this: in 2019, I was invited to apply for a BP scholarship, wherein the company would provide £3000 a year to subsidise a student’s degree and fast-track them to a BP job upon graduation. For students, many struggling with rising costs, this would certainly be an appealing option; for BP, it provides a crop of new graduate hires at a time when recruitment into the industry is becoming ever more difficult.

It is only by severing all connections with fossil fuel companies that Cambridge University can really claim to be supporting sustainable research. As one of the most famous and influential universities in the world, the University is not a neutral actor in this story: allowing Big Oil to fund labs, fellowships, and equipment legitimises the whole industry, reinforcing the idea that academia could not survive without fossil fuel companies’ support. Therefore, the Chemical Engineering Department’s decision to pause its fossil fuel teaching deal is welcome, but there is much further to go. If anything, it serves to show how deeply ingrained these companies still are within Cambridge education.