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Opinion | Better to transition faster than to ban companies

Jan Bouwens,
9 juni 2023 - 09:40

If we want to switch to using new, sustainable energy sources, doing research is necessary. And if the data needed for the research comes from Shell, that doesn’t have to be a problem, argues accounting professor Jan Bouwens. As long as scientists stick to the - existing - requirements of doing good research.

Since last March, we at the UvA have been discussing whether we as a university should be willing to partner with polluting industries. Many reasons are given as to why this is wrong, with the most definitive one going roughly as follows. Companies like Shell have used so many delaying tactics in the past and have continued to do so up until very recently, as well as obscuring pollution to such a great extent that they are out of the game. No cooperation, ever!
I wonder if the Uva is asking the right question regarding third-party collaboration by focusing on companies rather than the transition. Shouldn’t accelerating the transition be the guiding criterion?
We are looking for means to promote the transition from dirty to clean energy and we are in a hurry. If that is so and we believe that the university should promote the speed of this transition, then what is more obvious than to employ every means at hand if the transition is being promoted?
Let me make a foray into research to illustrate my point. In 2000, Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh published the article “An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s Finances” in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. They analyzed the accounts of a gang of drug dealers to understand how it did business profitably and how trafficking and gangs were sustained. Among other things, they found that, on average, income in the gang was only a fraction above the legitimate labor market alternative. The enormous risks faced by traffickers were by no means offset by this small income premium.


The fortunes fell to the top members of the gang, and the prospect of one day being able to become such a leader seemed to explain why people were willing to take on so much risk for low compensation. The chance of dying as a street trafficker is seven percent every year; the leadership of the gang pays for the funeral. Do we want to know this? Yes, of course, because we want to know how the system works so we can combat or at least control it.

An academic should be able to ask research questions freely without constraint or controversy

Now, however, comes the clincher. Levitt cooperated with the gang because the accounting records were personally handed to him by a gang member who happened to have an MBA and understood why an economist would like to understand his business. Should Levitt have ignored the data because an active gang member had handed it to him? In my mind, no.
This brings me back to my point. In my opinion, as a university, we should care about research questions that expand our knowledge base and help us solve societal issues (in this case related to the transition to clean energy). We should take on projects as long as they contribute to answering those questions. Of course, one may wonder whether it is expedient to make a criminal gang pay, but surely the people working for the fossil fuel industry can be objectionably classified as a criminal gang.
Suppose a UvA researcher independently arrives at a question that requires data from the fossil fuel industry, and that industry also thinks this is a good research question. Shouldn’t this industry be allowed to contribute to the research if it also provides the data? As long as we as a university remain in control of the data and research, in my view there can be no objection to such research. But even if you think that the fossil fuel industry should not co-finance, we should still want to use the data if it accelerates the transition. It goes without saying that the origin of the data should always be stated and that they should be tested for reliability in many different ways. But these requirements have long applied to any research.
In short, the university should in general promote research that is free from manipulation by corporations or social groups. An academic should be able to ask research questions freely without constraint or controversy. Sources of data should be stated but requiring moral approval for the source of the data is not a foregone conclusion!