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The roles and responsibilities of universities in relation to planetary sustainability

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Roles and responsibilities of Universities in relation to planetary sustainability.

This panel discussion was hosted by UCCRI as part of the Cambridge Science Festival, on 16 March 2015. The proceedings were filmed and can be viewed below:

(Film credit: Toby Smith,

The panel was  chaired by Susan Watts, science journalist and ex-science editor for BBC Newsnight and panel members comprised the Rektor of the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen, Nicola Padfield, Master of Fitzwilliam College, Professor Alison Smith, acting Head of Department, Plant Sciences and Rob Lake, Independent Responsible Investment Advisor.  
See further information on panel members

What are the challenges that Universities face in terms of managing research and investment portfolios, which interface with external partners? How should Universities respond to public scrutiny of these activities, and perceptions about their ethical responsibilities to current and future generations, and the planet? Should universities manage their investments to reflect these concerns? Do they have a duty to guide public debate on climate change and energy policy and how far should this be reflected in their research and teaching? 

Student campaigns and public concern over ethical investment, as well as wider societal expectations in relation to the ways in which Universities handle their responsibilities to people and the planet, have been in sharp focus recently. In Norway, following an approach from the University of Bergen in relation to petroleum research, the Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) issued an opinion in 2014 which stated that


“achieving the goal of sustainability requires a transition to sustainable energy and knowledge development. Research funding authorities and research institutions are ascribed a special responsibility in this connection while the universities have a specific responsibility in their role as knowledge bearers.” 

In a number of countries, Universities have actively entered this debate, and some have taken steps to adjust their investment and research portfolios after a reconsideration of these responsibilities. Other public institutions, including those associated with research funding, have joined this discussion. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced its intention to take steps towards divestment in September 2014, while the Wellcome Trust has argued that engagement is better than disengagement. In February 2015, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), worth $850bn (£556bn) and founded on the nation’s oil and gas wealth, revealed a total of 114 companies which had been removed on environmental and climate grounds in its first report on responsible investing. The Guardian newspaper has launched a major campaign on divestment, and has called on the world's leading philanthropic foundations to move their money out of unsustainable fossil fuels. Leaders of these organisations have responded by arguing that they have more influence as engaged investors, while acknowledging that fossil fuel producers have responsibilities to protect the environment.

This session featured a Question Time style panel discussion with four speakers who have important roles in relation to these difficult questions. As Rektor of the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen has been at the heart of the Norwegian debate, while Rob Lake, an independent finance professional has worked with the Norwegian Pension Fund and with a number of US college endowments on their approaches to responsible investment. As academic leaders in the University of Cambridge, Nicola Padfield and Alison Smith are well-placed to comment on the roles and responsibilities of the Collegiate University, and how it can manage the expectations of students, employees, academic staff and the wider public in relation to the implications of research and investment decisions on planetary sustainability. The discussion included valuable contributions from an engaged and well-informed audience, who participated in this vital conversation about the role of Universities in relation to the future of people and the planet.



Susan Watts

Susan Watts is a science journalist and was science editor of the BBC's Newsnight programme, from January 1995 to November 2013. She spent ten years in print journalism specialising in scientific topics, working for Computer Weekly from 1985-9, New Scientist from 1989-91 and The Independent from 1991-5, before moving into television. She won a BAFTA for her reporting of the BSE "Mad Cow" crisis in British farming.

Panel Members

Rector Dag Rune Olsen, University of Bergen, Norway

Dag Rune Olsen was Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Bergen until becoming Rector in 2013. He was previously Director of Research at the Norwegian Radium Hospital in Oslo and is a Professor in Medical Physics. In early January 2014, he decided to write to the National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) asking it to assess the implications of the guidelines for petroleum research. The letter refers to various debates between Universities globally, including Stanford, regarding the ethics of collaborating with the petroleum industry and petroleum research in general.  Dag Rune Olsen asked the committee for advice on the dilemma between petroleum as an important part of the Norwegian economy, the need to meet future energy demands, and the environmental considerations that require a limitation of CO2 emissions.

Rob Lake, Independent Responsible Investment Advisor

Rob Lake has a diverse range of experience in the investment industry and in sustainability issues. Previous roles have included Director of Responsible Investment at the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment and as the asset manager for one of the world’s largest pension funds, ABP in the Netherlands, where he built and led the sustainability and governance team. From 2000 to 2007 Rob Lake directed ESG research and engagement for a leading fund manager – Henderson Global Investors, in London. One of his most recent projects was as a member of the Strategy Council to the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, which reviewed the Fund’s approach to responsible investment

Nicola Padfield, Master of Fitzwilliam College

Nicola Padfield is Master of Fitzwilliam College, and a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge. Her teaching and research has covered a broad canvas in criminal law, sentencing and criminal justice more generally. She sits as a Recorder (part-time judge) in the Crown Court, is a Bencher of the Middle Temple and served as the University Advocate for several years. As Master of Fitzwilliam, she has an overview of strategic issues in relation to the Collegiate University, including students and teaching, research, and the management of estates and finance, as well as fund raising.

Professor Alison Smith, Acting Head of the Department of Plant Sciences

Alison Smith is Head of the Plant Metabolism group and Acting Head of Department at the Department of Plant Sciences. Her group’s research explores the potential for exploitation of algae for bioenergy production, in particular the use of algae to capture CO2 from fixed installations, metabolic engineering of high value products from plants and algae, and biotechnological uses of algae, such as for biodiesel production. As part of the Bioenergy Initiative in Cambridge, she works with a wide spectrum of experts, including biologists, engineers, chemical engineers and economists to develop forms of bioenergy that are sustainable, ethically and socially responsible and do not compete with food crops.




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