Irresponsible engineering and science

| 10th March 2020
Exxon Mobil Refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Wikipedia
Financial connections between some of the world’s most controversial corporations and leading UK engineering and science organisations uncovered in new research.

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Britain’s largest science and engineering event for young people – the ‘Big Bang Fair’ – attracts 80,000 people a year. Its main organiser is EngineeringUK, the professional body responsible for the public promotion of engineering.

So far, so good. But there’s a catch. The ‘lead sponsor’ for 2020 – and indeed for every year since the fair’s inauguration in 2009 – is BAE Systems, the biggest arms corporation outside of the USA, key supplier of strike planes to the Saudi Arabian military – whose bombing raids have killed so many civilians in Yemen – and the lead contractor for the new UK’s new nuclear-armed Dreadnought submarines. 

Disturbingly, this is not an isolated case of significant financial links between some of the world’s most controversial corporations and the UK’s professional bodies in engineering and science. Other examples are provided by the school education programmes run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the nation’s most prestigious engineering body.

Funding 

Data published in the Academy’s own annual report showed that over 70 percent of the external funding it recently received for its school education programmes was from fossil fuel corporations.

Furthermore, almost all of the downloadable teaching resources provided by the academy on its website involved arms corporations, the armed forces and/or promoted military technologies. 

Then there’s the Energy Institute, the professional body for those working across the energy supply and demand sectors. Its most high-profile activity each year is ‘International Petroleum Week’ – one of the world’s biggest events for the oil and gas industry, generating income for the institute measured in the millions of pounds. Recent sponsors included Rosneft, Russia’s controversial state-controlled oil company.

These are some of the findings of a new report by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) on the financial links between the fossil fuel and arms industries on the one hand, and some of the UK’s leading professional engineering and science organisations on the other. The range and extent of the links has not been documented until now. 

Investigation 

Professional engineering and science organisations (PESOs) play a very important role in modern society, setting standards of conduct and providing leadership for scientists and engineers. As such, PESOs help society gain important benefits.

Yet society is also obviously facing enormous threats created by the irresponsible use of science and technology – the global climate crisis and a resurgent nuclear arms race, to name just two.

At the centre of these problems lie very powerful fossil fuel and arms corporations. Yet the financial and institutional links between these industries and PESOs have rarely been examined in depth.

SGR’s study sought to fill this gap. We investigated a sample of 20 leading PESOs, focusing on four main financial links: funding of school education programmes; investments; event sponsorship; and corporate membership schemes.

We uncovered a wide range of financial relationships. We also found in many key areas that transparency was very poor, which was especially worrying given that openness is a cornerstone of scientific work. 

Investments

Nine PESOs ran school education programmes which had some involvement with the fossil fuel industry, the arms industry or both. Three of these nine bodies had especially high levels of involvement – the Royal Academy of Engineering, EngineeringUK, and the Energy Institute.

In addition to the examples mentioned above, EngineeringUK has received funding of at least £1m from Shell for its programme, ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’. 

We found that four PESOs, including the Energy Institute and EngineeringUK, held high levels of investments in the fossil fuel industry.

As we were launching our report, we were able to extract additional data on the investments held by the Royal Society. The society admitted that it held a minimum of £16 million in the fossil fuel industry, and that the actual holdings could be a lot higher. Of 20 PESOs in our study, only one – the British Psychological Society – had an ethical investment policy which restricted investment in the fossil fuel or arms industries.

Five other PESOs held no investments in these industries due to their practice of not holding investments listed on stock exchanges or similar. 

Sponsorship

Additionally, seven PESOs received a high level of events sponsorship from the fossil fuel industry, the arms industry or both. In addition to the Energy Institute’s International Petroleum Week discussed above, we found that nearly 90 percent of the external sponsors of the Geological Society’s events were from the fossil fuel sector. 

The Atomic Weapons Establishment provided sponsorship for the Institute of Physics’ prestigious awards dinner for at least four years in a row, and BP were a sponsor of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious annual dinner for at least three years in a row.

Five PESOs had high levels of other financial or institutional links with the fossil fuel industry, the arms industry, or both. For example, 70 percent of the Geological Society’s corporate members were from the fossil fuel sector, while the Engineering Teaching Fellowships run by the Royal Academy of Engineering were funded by ExxonMobil.

The Energy Institute’s president was, until 2019, a former managing director of Shell.

Further detail is provided in the main report, with in-depth material given in appendices. All are available on the SGR website.

Transparency 

Our report argues that professional bodies should both be much more transparent about their income from corporations, and take concerted action to eliminate their financial links with the fossil fuel and arms industries.

A priority should be to immediately end all sponsorship of school education programmes by these controversial corporations.

A further step would be to examine the extent to which the policies and practices of their organisation and profession are consistent with the Paris climate commitments.

Such actions would allow the professional organisations to properly fulfil their goal of providing responsible leadership for the science and engineering community, and help accelerate urgently needed action to tackle the enormous environmental and security problems currently facing the world. 

Change

While PESOs are not noted for their quick action, there are recent signs of improvement. After pressure from members, the British Psychological Society published, in late 2018, an ethical investment policy which excludes fossil fuel companies and most arms companies.

In early 2020, the Royal College of Physicians announced it would accelerate its divestment from fossil fuel companies. Also, following the publication of the SGR report, Prof Bill McGuire – a member of the Geological Society for over 40 years – resigned in protest at the organisation’s strong financial links to the fossil fuel industry, and urged other members to follow suit.

We are planning more campaigning to reform PESOs over the coming months. If you are a member of a professional engineering or science organisation and want to help, please get in touch via email<info@sgr.org.uk>

This Author 

Dr Stuart Parkinson is executive director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, and lead author of the report, Irresponsible Science? How the fossil fuel and arms corporations finance professional engineering and science organisations.

Image: ExxonMobil refinery. WClarke, Wikipedia. 

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