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Academic Washing? How Spain's Energy Sector Cleans Its Image At Universities

The big Spanish electricity and oil companies sponsor numerous research chairs at top universities: Is this cynical 'greenwashing' or innovative collaboration for the energy transition?

Academic Washing? How Spain's Energy Sector Cleans Its Image At Universities

In the corridors at Universidad Pontificia Comillas ICAI-ICADE

Universidad Facebook page
Dani Dominguez

MADRID — Spain's major energy companies have found a first-rate partner in universities.

At Comillas University, for example, the companies sponsor the Module of Energy and Innovation, financed by Iberdrola; the Module of Family and Disability and the Module of Social Impact, in which the Repsol Foundation participates, as well as the Module of Energy and Poverty, run by Naturgy and Endesa.

In other words, the four big electricity companies on Spain's IBEX 35 leading stock index pay for some type of studies at this private university, which also hosts the Chair of Connected Industry; whose board of trustees includes Repsol, Endesa and Enagás, among others; and the Chair of Energy and Sustainability, which is paid for by British Petroleum (BP).

While the example of Comillas is paradigmatic for the amount of sponsored research it hosts, the list of universities that have joined the phenomenon of studies paid by energy companies is long: the Polytechnic universities of Madrid, Barcelona and Cartagena, the universities of Barcelona, Salamanca, Navarra, Lleida, Basque Country, Zaragoza, Seville, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Balearic Islands, Vigo or others like the Rovira i Virgili University, the International University of Andalusia or the Colegio Europa, as well as foreign centers.

Cleaning up a corporate image

Most of the sources consulted by this media agree in pointing to the role played by this type of training and financed research in cleaning up the image of the sponsoring companies: it is "Academic Washing" or, in Pierre Bourdieu's terms, the transformation of the economic capital of these companies, through economic contributions, into social capital, which leads to greater acceptance by society. Greenwashing through academia.

Others, however, say they believe collaboration between companies and universities is beneficial for society as a whole and for students, who otherwise would not have access to certain training.

"They are such big companies that they could not leave the university out of their public relations strategies," explains Mario Sánchez-Herrero, professor of Economics at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) and founder of Ecooo Revolución Solar. He argues that the academy gives these companies "a stamp of knowledge, seriousness and relevance": "In terms of image, it is very helpful for an electricity company to have modules at a university".

The UniversidadxClima collective, (University for the Climate), made up of university professors, technical staff, researchers and students, argues that the financing of this type of studies above all serves the companies' interest "to clean up their image." The organization arose because they were "fed up with seeing things in the university that seem very hypocritical to us," they complain. Through their Twitter account, they denounce all university research that they consider contributes to this greenwashing from academia.

Consequences of lack of public funding

In the period between 2010 and 2017, the public universities have stopped receiving almost 10 billion euros, going from representing 2.15% of public spending to practically half: 1.6%. This continuous decline in public resources has driven many university institutions into the arms of large energy companies.

"Spain is below European levels in terms of research funding, and this has left wide open doors for all the companies that come in. They put on a mask, lower the bar and allow private companies to enter. They don't care if they are polluting companies," argues UniversidadxClima.

The university collective points out that this is a model imported from the United States and that "it began with the pharmaceutical companies" after the rise of neoliberal theses and the privatization of public services.

The public visibility as a company that supports knowledge and universities is a very good strategy.

Sánchez-Herrero argues that corporate presence on campus is not necessarily a new phenomenon even in Spain: "I have been seeing Banco Santander at university since I was a student in the 1990s. They opened an account for each student and they already had captive clients who could have significant income in the future. If you add to that the public visibility as a company that supports knowledge and universities, it is a very good strategy," acknowledges the UCM professor.

The Engineering Without Borders (ISF) federation refers to 2007, the year of the implementation of the Bologna Plan, a university reform which, they denounce, "has meant a move towards the privatization and commercialization of Universities." They point out that, among other measures, the Bologna Plan was committed to "making universities responsible for their own financial sustainability, proposing the search of funds from private companies to increase their budget." This change, on top of the cuts in public investment, has become the perfect breeding ground for the entry of these companies into university institutions.

Top polluters boast about sustainability

Different university teaching and research sources, several of whom have agreed to speak anonymously, consider that the large energy companies have changed the subject matter of the courses they finance. "Before, it was more attractive to speak about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and now the hook is Ecological Transition and Sustainability," says one of, who assures that, after the banks, the energy companies are the most powerful companies in the country. It is this vague concept of sustainability that permeates an important part of these financed research projects.

Among the most recent examples is Repsol. Previously, the modules sponsored by the oil company dealt with topics such as "excellence in communication," "family and disability" or "competitiveness." As of 2019, however, they have created the Energy Transition Module in four different centers: the University of Barcelona (UB), the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM), the Pontifical University of Comillas and the University of Navarra. In addition, this year it has promoted the creation of a master's degree in Hydrogen Technologies, together with five universities. In 2020, Repsol was the company that generated the most greenhouse gas emissions in Spain, according to the Sustainability Observatory.

In second and third position in this ranking of major polluters are Endesa and Naturgy. Both companies are among the driving forces behind the Foundation for Energy and Environmental Sustainability (FUNSEAM). This organization has a Chair of Energy Sustainability at the University of Barcelona, a perfect example of the convergence between the public and private spheres and their blurred boundaries, since two semi-public companies participate in it: Enagás and Red Eléctrica.

The case of BP is also relevant. Considered as the sixth company that has historically emitted the most greenhouse gases on the planet (34.02 billion tons since 1965), it sponsors the Module of Energy and Sustainability at Comillas University since 2002, which "considers that a sustainable energy model is one that contributes to the well-being of humanity, while preserving environmental or institutional resources, and contributes to their fair distribution."

BP was found guilty in 2014 for the oil spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico four years earlier when the judge rules that it was the result of gross negligence on the part of the company. The disaster cost the lives of eleven workers and caused the spill of more than 500 million liters of crude oil for almost three months. With obvious environmental consequences, it is considered the largest oil spill in history.

Independent conclusions or paid conclusions?

For Fernando Prieto, coordinator of the Sustainability Observatory and member of Extinction Rebellion, "it is neither ethical nor aesthetic" for the country's most polluting companies to finance university research groups since the main interest of these companies is to "maximize their profits."

In the same way, he argues that the universities themselves should not allow these situations "that only contribute to washing the image" of these multinationals. This specialist in sustainability believes that the problem surrounding this phenomenon is the impossibility of knowing "where the scientific criteria ends and the interests of the companies begin."

They may appear to be independent, but in the end become instruments of the companies

From Enginyeria Sense Fronteres Tarragona,-one of the territorial associations of the ISF federation, Andrea Vides de Dios assures that these collaboration agreements between universities and companies "lead to the expulsion or limitation of research lines that are not compatible with the economic interests" of the sponsoring companies.

For Vides de Dios, society is left at the mercy of research and technology transfer proposals that only obey the logic of corporate economic benefit. "The independence and transparency in the production and transfer of knowledge emerging in universities is compromised," she argues. "Given the current state of climate emergency, none of these modules are committed to plans for de-growth, nor for global justice or, ultimately, for the main objective that a public institution should assume: the benefit of society."

A protest in front of Endesa headquarters in Barcelona

Thiago Prudencio/SOPA Images via ZUMA

Conflict of interest between academia and private enterprise

One of the clearest cases of possible conflict of interest between academia and private enterprise is that of Mariano Marzo Carpio, professor of Stratigraphy at the University of Barcelona and director of the Repsol Module of Energy Transition at that institution. While serving as such, he sits on the oil company's Board of Directors, a position he has held since 2017 to perform functions as an external independent advisor. In 2019, the year he was chosen as Repsol Module professor, he received remuneration for his work as an advisor of 256,000 euros, 13,000 euros more than the previous year.

Domingo Jiménez Beltrán, an industrial engineer by the ESTII of the UPM and the first executive director of the European Environment Agency, recognizes that this type of situation "in which a double hat is worn, lends itself to doubt." However, he underlines the "important academic trajectory" of Marzo Carpio and defends that "if anyone can separate both positions, it is him."

Within the interest there is always bias.

However, he maintains that in Spain there is no regulated and transparent relationship between the universities and the companies, something that exists in other countries: "That is why, when they come together, difficulties appear, because a relationship based on interests is established," he explains. "And within the interest there is always bias." In view of this, he says that everything depends on whether "the sponsor is part of the solution or part of the problem: if you are part of the solution, it can work; if you are part of the problem, it is more complicated."

Carlos Pérez, a graduate in Aeronautical Engineering from the UPM and current researcher in renewable energies, argues that behind many of these cases there are "personal connections" and interests of the professors and senior administrative that cause the university to be more permissive: "The director of the School of Aeronautical Engineering of the UPM, Cristina Cuerno, is the director of the Airbus Module, and Airbus benefits from having an overcrowded classroom in a university where they can organize courses."

Ideology mixed with research

For UniversidadxClima, "university modules have become the professors' companies". The group believes that it is not possible to be "completely independent" by participating in this type of research project financed by large companies with important interests in these fields of study: "They may appear to be independent but in the end they become instruments of academic washing of these polluting companies."

Mario Sánchez-Herrero, professor of Economics at the Complutense University of Madrid, explains that, "without putting your own scientific prestige at risk, you can have a greater or lesser impact" on assessments that question the business model of the company that pays the chair: "All of us who have done research or have written scientific articles can be harsher or less harsh in certain statements. Depending on the tone you use, you can strain your relationship with your sponsor or not," he explains.

However, Sánchez-Herrero does not believe that the publication of conclusions close to the companies implies that researchers are "structurally corrupt": "These people from the establishment may be ideologically positioned towards the multinational," he concludes. "Ideology is mixed with research. They may think, for example, that it is the multinationals who should lead the ecological transition instead of civil society. It's not that they say so because they are paid, it's that they believe so."

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