Column Steven: Resolutions for WUR

Be transparent and explain why and how you collaborate.
Steven Snijders, blogger Resource

Have you decided on your New Year’s resolutions for 2024? I have. Not for me, but for WUR. Quitting smoking has already been achieved on the smoke-free campus. ‘Losing weight’ may make sense in view of the student housing shortage. But I have a more original resolution for WUR: provide transparency and clarification about partnerships with the fossil industry as of January.

A small recap: there were occupations on campus to protest WUR’s collaboration with the fossil industry. WUR was set to decide on whether or not to sever these ties by the summer. A rigorous decision was not reached. Instead, an advisory committee was launched to formulate additional criteria for whether or not research commissions or partnerships should be accepted. What follows is the most bureaucratic sentence of all my 46 columns in Resource (apologies): this advisory committee is currently wrapping up its draft advice based on the input from public consultations in November, after which the Executive Board will reach a decision on the proposed criteria somewhere in the course of 2024. Annual reports on WUR’s dealings with the fossil industry are expected no sooner than 2025 or even 2026.

Annual reports on WUR’s dealings with the fossil industry are expected no sooner than 2025 or even 2026

As is to be expected, WUR expeditiously addresses one of the most pressing issues of our generation, cough, cough (no, this is not a smokers’ cough). I applaud the nuance, the careful considerations and the help in making ‘dirty’ businesses cleaner. But what does all of this mean in practice?

Currently, WUR’s main fossil partnership is with Shell. The criteria proposed by the Advisory Committee include whether the fossil party is ‘committed’ to the Paris Agreement. According to a proposed criterium in the draft advice, a business such as Shell will probably fail to qualify as committed* and will thus be excluded from partnerships. But the key question is: will a consensus be reached on exactly what ‘committed’ means?

There is a very popular trick that every top-level administrator is aware of: ‘strategic ambivalence’. This is a handy tool for leaders having to deal with conflicting opinions and interests (like the COP28 final statement). How does it work? Formulate in general desires (‘nance’, ‘no one-dimensional answer’), delay and keep it abstract (‘committed to Paris’). Thus, every party can see something good in it. Although perhaps not purposely, WUR seems to be using this tool.

Dear WUR, start showing more transparency in January 2024. Let us know about professors sponsored by Shell. And, if WUR seriously aims to have a positive impact, they will have to construct a counterfactual for each individual project: what would the world look like without this specific partnership or project? Could this research perhaps also be done with a different party? What are the chances that a new, alternative party with which the desired impact can still be achieved will fill Shell’s place if this company is refused?

A satisfactory justification for actions – whatever these actions may be – regarding one of the most significant issues of our time does not seem like too much to ask for. Have a merry Christmas!

* According to a proposal in the draft advice, these principles are used to assess whether a business is committed to the Paris Agreement. Oil companies are required to publish a transition plan detailing how they intend to phase out fossil activities by 2050. Shell appears to fail to meet all of the criteria. Shell, however, says it is committed to the Paris Agreement.

Steven (25) is doing a Master’s degree in Economics and Policy and has just finished doing an internship at a research institute for economics. He enjoys hitting the squash court and is always up for a game of squash and a good conversation. You can email him here.

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