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UK academics urge Royal Society to condemn fossil fuel industry

Scientists say the prestigious institution should stop accepting funding from oil and gas companies

A group of UK academics has called on the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy, to stop accepting funding from fossil fuel companies and to condemn their role in causing the climate crisis.

In an open letter published on Wednesday, more than 100 scientists, including professors, lecturers and researchers from various disciplines, said the society should “sever all ties” with the oil and gas industry and use its influence to urge governments to phase out fossil fuels.

The letter, which was coordinated by Culture Unstained, a campaign group that challenges the fossil fuel industry’s influence on culture and science, said the society’s acceptance of funding from companies such as BP, Shell and ExxonMobil was “deeply problematic”.

The letter said: “The Royal Society’s stated mission is to ‘recognise, promote and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity’. Yet by continuing to accept funding from fossil fuel companies, the society is lending legitimacy and credibility to an industry that has actively undermined climate science, spread misinformation and obstructed action on climate change for decades.”

The letter cited a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which said that no new fossil fuel projects should be approved if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

UK academics urge Royal Society to condemn fossil

The letter said: “The IEA’s report makes clear that the fossil fuel era is over and that a rapid transition to renewable energy is urgently needed. The Royal Society should be at the forefront of this transition, not lagging behind.”

The letter also pointed out that the society had previously taken a strong stance against tobacco companies, which it accused of “deliberately creating controversy” about the health effects of smoking in the 1980s.

The letter said: “We urge the Royal Society to apply the same principles to the fossil fuel industry and to publicly acknowledge the harm it has caused to science, society and the environment.”

The letter was signed by prominent scientists such as Professor Kevin Anderson, Professor Julia Steinberger, Professor Tim Jackson, Professor Joanna Haigh and Professor Sir Andy Haines.

The Royal Society defends its position

In response to the letter, the Royal Society said it was committed to tackling the climate crisis and that it had a “robust” policy on accepting funding from external sources.

A spokesperson for the society said: “The Royal Society is a leader in efforts to address climate change. We provide independent scientific advice to policymakers, support innovation in clean energy technologies and promote public engagement on this vital issue.”

The spokesperson said that the society had received £22.3m from fossil fuel companies over the past 10 years, which represented less than 2% of its total income. The spokesperson said that most of this funding was used for research grants and fellowships in areas such as low-carbon energy, carbon capture and storage, and biodiversity.

The spokesperson said: “We have a robust due diligence process for all potential funders, which includes consideration of their alignment with our mission and values. We do not accept funding that would compromise our independence or reputation.”

The spokesperson added that the society was reviewing its funding policy in light of the IEA’s report and that it would publish an updated version later this year.

The fossil fuel industry faces growing pressure

The open letter to the Royal Society is part of a wider movement to challenge the fossil fuel industry’s influence on science, culture and education.

In recent years, several prominent institutions, such as the Tate galleries, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Science Museum, have faced protests and criticism for accepting sponsorship from oil and gas companies.

Some of these institutions have since ended or reduced their ties with fossil fuel sponsors, while others have defended their partnerships as a way of diversifying their income and supporting public access.

Meanwhile, hundreds of universities, pension funds, foundations and faith groups around the world have divested from fossil fuels or committed to do so in response to campaigns by students, staff and activists.

According to Fossil Free UK, a network of grassroots groups that advocates for divestment, more than 80 UK universities have divested or partially divested from fossil fuels, representing over half of the sector.

Fossil Free UK also claims that more than 50 local councils in England and Wales have divested or committed to divest their pension funds from fossil fuels, affecting over £16bn of investments.

However, some critics argue that divestment is not enough and that more direct action is needed to stop new fossil fuel projects and hold companies accountable for their environmental and human rights impacts.

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