How do my peers regard industry funding? (Part 1)

Every year for the past 23 years, the postgraduate PhD and MRes students at Edinburgh University’s School of GeoSciences have put on a weekend conference. I have previously written about last year’s conference, and how the current conference format is maintained through industry sponsorship.

The School of GeoSciences is currently ranked 17th in the QS World University Rankings, and is probably one of the most diverse earth science institutions in the world, including pretty much everything from sociology/human geography through geology, atmospheric physics/geophysics and out the other side to ecology/agriculture. Needless to say, this represents a very broad spectrum of views on how research should be funded, the involvement of industry in academia, and of course, how our annual GradSchool Conference is funded.

That the Conference is largely supported by oil, gas, and mining companies is a sore point among some within the School. I wondered if these were views held widely across the PhD and MRes cohort so, with the support of others in the School, I put together an informal survey to find out attitudes to industry funding. To anyone outwith the School of Geosciences at Edinburgh University, this post (and the following accompaniments) may seem rather parochial. While most certainly an internal discussion, it potentially reflects more widely in the University and society on attitudes to the involvement of fossil fuel, mining and other industries within our education system. I won’t offer my own opinion here, but the fact that I accepted a research grant provided by Scottish Power should give you a good idea which way I lean.

Bearing that in mind, consider the following:

  • I had no prior experience of designing surveys of this type and as such there may be an inherent bias in the questions and/or they may not have been clear enough
  • The survey was held by filling in a Google form, with no login required, therefore multiple responses could be submitted by any individual to ‘game’ the responses

The questions asked were designed to assess a) sentiment toward general University investment in fossil fuel (FF) companies; b) attitudes to fossil fuel and mining funding within the School generally; c) attitudes to receiving sponsorship from these businesses for the GradSchool Conference; d) sentiment toward general relationship between commerce/industry and the School; e) a final question on which research institutes within the School the respondent belonged to. The questions asked were, in order:

  1. How strongly do you agree/disagree that the University of Edinburgh should divest from fossil fuel companies?
  2. How strongly do you agree/disagree that the School of GeoSciences should no longer accept money or services from fossil fuel companies for the purposes of funding research?
  3. How strongly do you agree/disagree that the School of GeoSciences should no longer accept money or services from fossil fuel companies for any other general School activities?
  4. How strongly do you agree/disagree that the GradSchool Conference should no longer accept sponsorship from fossil fuel companies?
  5. How strongly do you agree/disagree that the School of GeoSciences should no longer accept money or services from mining companies for the purposes of funding research?
  6. How strongly do you agree/disagree that the School of GeoSciences should no longer accept money or services from mining companies for any other general School activities?
  7. How strongly do you agree/disagree that the GradSchool Conference should no longer accept sponsorship from mining companies?
  8. How strongly do you agree/disagree that the School of GeoSciences should cut links more broadly with industry or commercial sectors, unrelated to fossil fuels and mining?
  9. What is your Research Institute?
  10. Respondents were also asked to provide a final comment if they wished to.

The results will be presented over three blog posts (links updated as published):

Part 1: Aggregated School of Geosciences responses to Questions 1-8 (this post)
Part 2: Responses to Questions 1-9, broken down by Research Institute
Part 3: Selected comments from Question 10

Part 1: Aggregated School of Geosciences responses to Questions 1-8

The total number of responses to the survey was 146, from an estimated 235 PhD and MRes students, giving a response rate of 146/237 = 62.1%, which is excellent, assuming that there are no multiple responses from individuals. The responses to Questions 1-8 are tabulated below by question number, and are plotted as bar graphs in Figures 1-8, with apologies for the number of charts and my choice of colours ;).

Question Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree N/A
1 22 20 13 37 54
2 51 27 22 19 27
3 41 48 27 21 29
4 36 31 19 27 33
5 48 32 25 16 25
6 37 36 28 18 27
7 34 35 26 25 26
8 62 38 22 11 11 2

Responses to whether the University of Edinburgh should divest from fossil fuel companies (divest defined in the survey as “…to remove University money from investment schemes with the explicit purpose of generating profits from the activities of fossil fuel companies.”) largely agreed/strongly agreed (62.3%) with this aim across the School, Fig. 1.

Figure 2. Response to question on Edinburgh University Divestment. n=146

Figure 1. Response to question on Edinburgh University Divestment. n=146

Below are Figures 2-4, showing results of questions on School and GradSchool funding by FF companies. The results of the question on FF sponsorship of the GradSchool Conference (Fig. 4) shows across the School as a whole, 45.9% disagreeing with the notion of rejecting FF sponsorship of the Conference, with 40.1% agreeing for a rejection of FF money. This is pretty close to an equal split in views, with the strongest sentiments agreeing/disagreeing accounting for nearly half of the answers returned (Fig. 4). Views across the School more strongly disagree that FF money should not be used for research (Fig. 2) or other purposes (Fig. 3).

Figures 5-7, below, show results of questions on School and GradSchool funding by mining companies. The results of the question on mining sponsorship of the GradSchool Conference (Fig. 7) shows very slight increase in support compared with FF funding across the School as a whole, with 47.26% disagreeing with the notion of rejecting mining sponsorship of the Conference, but with a significant shift from agreeing for a rejection of mining money (34.93%) towards a neutral view. I find this interesting as, arguably, mining companies have a worse environmental/corporate/social record than oil and gas companies. Views across the School more strongly disagree that mining money should not be used for research (Fig. 5) or other purposes (Fig. 6), although again there is an increase in neutral views compared with FF sponsorship.

Finally, across the School as a whole, there is significant disagreement (68.5%) that wider ties to commercial interests, or other industries should be cut, Fig. 8. Since this question was optional, two respondents (1.4%) chose not to answer.

Figure 9. Responses to other general industry or commercial links within the School.

Figure 8. Responses to other general industry or commercial links within the School.

In summary, there appears to be an appetite within the postgrad students in the School of Geosciences for the University of Edinburgh to divest from fossil fuel companies, but for the School itself to retain broader industry links. As a whole, the School supports or is neutral regarding the acceptance of funding from fossil fuel and mining companies for research and other activities. However, there is a reasonably even split of opinion across the School regarding fossil fuel and mining sponsorship of the Gradschool Conference, with strong opinions for and against.

In the next post, the responses to Questions 1-8 will be broken down by Research Institute. You can click here when the next post goes live.

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “How do my peers regard industry funding? (Part 1)

  1. Q1: How strongly do you agree/disagree that the University of Edinburgh should divest from fossil fuel companies?

    Q2: How strongly do you agree/disagree that the School of GeoSciences should no longer accept money or services from fossil fuel companies for the purposes of funding research?

    Question Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree
    1 22 54
    2 51 27

    The morals of a prostitute.

      • Those who expect the university to divest from FF companies (whilst simultaneously enjoying the benefit of the personal comfort conditions provided by the products of those companies), yet will take a chunk of the profits of those very same companies because it helps finance their education/career.

        [Admittedly the 22/54 may not be the same individuals as the 51/27 (& also because it’s 76 vs 78), but I doubt they’re wholly mutually exclusive.]

      • Divestment from schemes which generate profit for the University through the activities of oil/gas companies is a separate issue to using these companies’ support for research. Divestment != cutting off your livelihood, nor does support for divestment equate to hypocrisy with regard to working with these companies to improve our knowledge of the world.

        So, no, I don’t think supporting one and not the other is hypocrisy.

      • So, a few members of one tiny part of Edinburgh University which has 12,500 staff & 65,000 students, undergrads & post grads, attempts to dictate to management, a change in investment policy that was originally designed to benefit all 77,500? How very democratic. Or selfish.

      • I’m getting a bit tired of these attacks JP and so henceforth your comments will go direct to moderation.

        The divestment movement started outwith the School and indeed the University, so it is in no way an attempt by the School to dictate University policy. Secondly, whoever said that the University was democratic? Decisions are already made by a small number University officials on the direction which the University goes.

  2. You graciously admit “I had no prior experience of designing surveys of this type and as such there may be an inherent bias in the questions”.

    Perhaps you should have added another couple of questions:

    9. How strongly do you agree/disagree that those who wish the University of Edinburgh to divest from fossil fuel companies; wish the School of GeoSciences to no longer accept money or services from fossil fuel companies for the purposes of funding research; wish the School of GeoSciences to no longer accept money or services from fossil fuel companies for any other general School activities; and, wish the GradSchool Conference to no longer accept sponsorship from fossil fuel companies – should therefore fund their own research?

    10. How strongly do you agree/disagree that those who wish the University of Edinburgh to divest from fossil fuel companies; wish the School of GeoSciences to no longer accept money or services from fossil fuel companies for the purposes of funding research; wish the School of GeoSciences to no longer accept money or services from fossil fuel companies for any other general School activities; and, wish the GradSchool Conference to no longer accept sponsorship from fossil fuel companies – should, as of today, demonstrate their disdain for fossil fuels by utilising none of their benefits?

    As an academic, you could perhaps tidy-up the phraseology, but I’m sure you’d be able to retain the meaning. Particularly as you admit to being funded by a company which views fossil fuels as a competitor, yet which ironically depends upon their existence for when the wind doesn’t blow, and/or the sun doesn’t shine.

    Or, like today, when the wind blows too fast.

    BTW, will you remind your readers how much your funder receives to ‘not produce’ when the market doesn’t require its output? Is it £millions per year?

      • Thanks for that additional (but superfluous) information.

        A true politician’s response – an answer to a question not asked in the hope the original questions get forgotten.

        How about adding my two suggested questions to your survey; and, will you remind your readers how much your funder receives to ‘not produce’ when the market doesn’t require its output? Is it £millions per year?

      • The survey is already completed, so no I will not be asking them to take it again on the whim of “Joe Public”.

        The information I gave is not superfluous, AFAIK. Currently no thermal generator in the UK is paid for standby time: pre-qualifiers for capacity payments were announced at the end of last year (assuming this is what you are talking about, you’ve not been clear) and Scottish Power specifically withdrew Longannet from the auction, and Cockenzie no longer operates. So a) the scheme is not running yet; b) Longannet would not be in it even if it was; c) if Scottish Power were to receive payments for standby, I don’t see what this means to my research. my colleagues, this survey, or the university…

        If you have information which shows that SP receive money for standby time, then why don’t you out with it and tell my readers? Unless it’s just a thinly veiled attack on my character, or something.

  3. Interesting survey thanks! I would be greatly interested to see how the split goes for the Geo’s vs the (human) geographers. As geology students are most often taught environmental science AND petroleum geology they do offer an interesting group. (Maybe I am being even more parochial!)

    Cheers,

    Roddy

    • Hi Roddy, we didn’t survey based on this distinction between researchers. Instead we grouped by research institute (follow the links are the top of the post to Part 2), which broadly represent Geography, Geology and Geophysics, and Atmospheric Science and Ecology. Geographers definitely lean more strongly to divestment, etc,, and my personal feeling is that this is largely the influence of the social scientists, but I cannot prove this 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s