Last summer, Cambridge University renamed what had been its BP Institute for Multiphase Flow as the Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows. The point of the rebrand was to take out the name of a firm involved in the production of fossil fuels.
You may remember how we reported some reactions to the move: optimism from Fossil Free Research; cautious welcome from Extinction Rebellion Cambridge; unplacated scepticism from This Is Not A Drill. The debate continues, and so do the protests.
Fighting climate change in BP lab coats
Meanwhile, students in the Chemistry Department continue to use lab coats with BP logos on them. I talked to one chemistry student about what this is like.
CHEMISTRY STUDENT: When I turned up in September and had my first lab, we were given BP lab coats. And we all thought it was quite funny, given that Cambridge University says that it is leading the way on fighting climate change. But it is still working with BP and things like Schlumberger. We were all a bit taken aback. A lot of Natural Sciences students turn up to Cambridge thinking that they will be able to help in fighting climate change. We’re doing science degrees, we’re hoping to bring the solutions and that’s what Cambridge says it’s about. And then we get there and we’re handed BP sponsored lab coats. Where did that come from?
There are certain pieces of equipment that you need – lab coat, lab goggles, calculator. All of these objects need to be university approved. You can buy your own unbranded lab coat for £15 or £20, or you can get a free one which has ‘BP’ on it. And these are the university approved ones – they have to be of a certain level of lab coat, to wear them in all chemistry and biology labs.
The objection to these coats is that it seems very hypocritical of the university to say that it is fighting climate change, while maintaining its connections with fossil fuel companies within the very labs and the training, which it claims will help to combat climate change.
It’s quite a stark visual reminder. But if you sew a patch over it, which says “Stop the Cambridge greenwash”, you don’t get disciplined for this, to my knowledge.
Nature published some research, I think last year, which showed that research funded by fossil fuels is far more likely to find that fossil fuels are not harmful to the environment or causing climate change than if it’s not funded by fossil fuels. But before we even started on our careers in science, we’re already being brought into the loop of funding by fossil fuels.
AIDAN BAKER: Does anyone make any ethical claims for the coats? Are they recycled, or made by a charity or anything of that sort?
CS: I’ve never heard anything like that. I don’t know. I’ve not looked into it.
Funny, surprising, concerning
AB: How widespread is the objection to them?
CS: If you’re doing a science degree, you’re quite likely to be worried about climate change. There’s a spectrum of people that just find the lab coats a bit funny, and a bit surprising, and people that are more concerned by them.
AB: What are people doing about the lab coats?
CS: We might cover up the patches, we might laugh at it a bit. I know a few people who have tried to dissolve the logos with acetone or nail polish remover. But we don’t complain much because we’ve got a free lab coat instead of having to spend £15 or £20 on it. If you come from a more working class background, in particular, Cambridge can be an incredibly intimidating place to come into. It’s quite a relief to have something like that provided free of charge.
AB: Are you hearing from anyone in praise of these coats?
CS: Well – the fact that they’re giving us free lab coats is a great thing. They’re perfectly functional lab coats. The sleeves of mine have dissolved a bit.
Could do better
The situation described by this student is indeed concerning. Fossil fuels are not only crucial but also totemic in the climate debate, and symbolism is important. The global climate emergency isn’t going to go away. One might reasonably expect that one of the world’s leading universities would be willing to shine a light on who is paying for research into the emergency and the potential solutions.
Representatives from the Chemistry Department were approached but did not wish to comment on the issue.