On 17 May, the BP Institute at the University of Cambridge was occupied for 63 minutes by students and academics of the Fossil Free Research campaign, calling for an end to university funding by the fossil fuel industry.
The BP Institute is a research institute founded in 2000 following an endowment by BP. It is attached to five of the University’s departments: Earth Sciences, Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Engineering. Its Annual Masterclass in Energy Supply and demand, according to the Institute’s web page, “includes lively debate on the energy transition, including presentations and discussion of the technological challenges associated with various sources of energy and challenges on reducing energy demand.”
Beth Doherty was one of those involved in the sit-in. Aidan Baker subsequently interviewed her by Zoom.
63 minute occupation
AB: Did you manage to stick to 63 minutes? And if so, how?
BD: Once we entered the building, we set a timer for 63 minutes. And after the 63 minutes ended the timer went off, and we left.
Why it was 63 minutes
AB: I gather it was 63 minutes for a 63rd anniversary. What happened in 1959?
BD: The executives of what’s now Exxon and other oil companies were first informed of the climate crisis and their contributions towards it. And we still haven’t seen much action from them in that time period.
AB: Can you give me chapter and verse? Who said what to the fossil fuel companies?
Beth has sent EAB a link to Benjamin Franta’s Guardianarticle about how nuclear weapons physicist Edward Teller addressed the 1959 Energy and Man symposium, organized by the American Petroleum Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Business to mark the centenary of the American oil industry, about the likely effects of carbon dioxide on climate.
AB: What are your plans now?
BD: We’re going to continue the campaign to ask the university to stop accepting fossil fuel funding for climate related research. We currently have over 600 signatures of academics on an open letter, prominent academics, within science and other fields. And increasing student engagement, and liaising with Harvard, Oxford and other universities around the world.
The university is accepting money from fossil fuel companies such as BP to fund climate related research. And this is threatening academic freedom and integrity in terms of what they can and can’t research, what they can and can’t publish. There’s a conflict of interest between the fossil fuel companies’ business model and what we need from climate related research. We believe we’re taking a natural step to ensure academic integrity and freedom and to avoid that conflict of interest. It’s in line with the university’s commitment to divestment.
AB: Are you a climate scientist yourself?
BD: I’m a first year law student. I’ve been involved in climate activism for the last three years. We have a pretty good mix of law students, politics students, students of natural sciences — a nice mix of disciplines.
EAB contacted the BP Institute to ask for its views. As of this writing a reply has not been received. Their masterclasses on the energy transition sound interesting, but the website tells of no plans for BP to withdraw from the oil business.