December 3, 2020

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

If opposites really do attract, then industry and academia must be made for one another. But should we be paying closer attention to the businesses that our best-loved institutions are getting into bed with?

Today, in case you hadn’t noticed, marks the official start of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Athletes from around the globe will soon be running, jumping, twirling, dribbling, pedalling and paddling their way through London, while those of us who live here try to work out how on earth we’re going to avoid tubes, trains, trams, buses, roads and pavements for the next 17 days.

At the end of a fortnight in which both motorways and security plans have crumbled, LOCOG, the London 2012 organising committee, must be longing for the moment when finally, after seven years of preparation, 15,000 athletes from 205 different countries will at last get down to the business of competition. The cumulative sporting achievement represented by the 4,700 medals to be handed out over the summer will, it is hoped, “inspire a generation”.

Less inspiring, perhaps, is the source of those much-coveted metal discs. Rio Tinto, the mining company responsible for digging up the eight tonnes of gold, silver and copper needed for London’s Olympic medals, has a somewhat questionable environmental and human rights record and, much to LOCOG’s dismay, the irony of this partnership has not gone unnoticed. As it turns out, hiring a company with Rio’s reputation for this particular task may not have been the brightest idea.

The Olympic medal supplier has a few skeletons in its closet, but the one that stands out concerns a goldmine operated by Rio Tinto in the late 1980s. And as skeletons go, they don’t get much bigger than this one.

In a decades-old lawsuit that has recently been revived by a US federal appeals court, 10,000 current and former residents of the small Pacific island of Bougainville have accused Rio Tinto of polluting their environment and forcing indigenous workers to live in “slave like” conditions at an economically vital mine in which the Papua New Guinea government also owned a large stake. It is alleged that after workers sabotaged the mine in 1988 in protest at their treatment, Rio goaded the government into taking violent action in order to keep the mine operational, sparking a civil war that eventually killed thousands. These actions, it is alleged, make Rio Tinto accountable for both war crimes and acts of genocide.

Rio vehemently denies these claims, but controversy continues to trail in the company’s wake. In April, the London-based group’s Annual General Meeting was disrupted by campaigners protesting against Rio’s Olympic involvement, while last week saw the company winning gold in a spoof ceremony in Leicester Square intended to name-and-shame London 2012’s “worst” corporate sponsors. Even more embarrassingly for LOCOG, the compère for this event, Meredith Alexander, is a former Olympic “sustainability csar” who earlier this year resigned from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 because of the ethics record of some of the Games’ major corporate sponsors. (I wasn’t joking when I said that LOCOG have had a bad fortnight.)

In the midst of all this, as the countdown clock ticked past day 73, our very own Imperial College announced its intention to join Rio Tinto’s Global Education Partnerships Programme. Under this scheme, Rio will provide twelve “academically outstanding” Imperial undergraduates with financial support and mentorship in an attempt to encourage “the best and brightest students” to pursue a career with the UK-based conglomerate. So, fingers crossed that genocide thing is just a rumour, eh?

But, if mining’s not your gig, don’t despair. Because Rio Tinto isn’t the College’s only bed-fellow of alleged disrepute.

Imperial’s Syngenta Innovation Centre on Systems Biology was set up in 2008 as a collaborative centre of excellence to “address biological research questions of importance to Syngenta”. Projects include an attempt to identify genetic factors involved in tomato ripening, and an analysis of key stages in pesticide safety assessment. All well and good, and much cleaner than mining, you may be thinking.

Unfortunately, Syngenta, like Rio Tinto, has a less-than-perfect record when it comes to ethics. In 2009, the year after the Centre’s grand opening, Syngenta was given a top-ten ranking by corporate research firm Covalence in a list of the world’s least ethical multinationals, with the agrochemical group being pipped-at-the-post only by well-known “baddies” such as tobacco-company Philip Morris and the infamous Halliburton. (Syngenta’s competitor, Monsanto, also of “Frankenfood” fame, took the gold on this occasion.)

Now, to be fair, Syngenta has certainly suffered from being in the wrong industry at the wrong time – Covalence’s ethics index is based partly on media coverage, so the public frenzy over GM in the mid-2000s will have made the poor performance of agri-businesses such as Syngenta and Monsanto almost inevitable. Nevertheless, accusations of human rights violations and violent evictions from Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park, amongst other things, do leave a sour taste in the mouth having eaten those wonderfully ripe tomatoes.

So, should we be concerned for our beloved University’s virtue? In hanging around with the likes of Rio and Syngenta, is Imperial getting in with the wrong crowd? Are we next going to find her smoking behind the bike-sheds with Philip Morris?

Well, perhaps there is cause for concern, but we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. Whilst a poor image does have a habit of rubbing off on those unwise enough to stand too close, industry-academic collaborations can nevertheless bring benefits to both parties, even when one partner is, shall we say, “reputationally challenged”. Universities need money and big multinationals need expertise, and society (or “the consumer”, as those in industry like to refer to us) should, in theory at least, be the ultimate beneficiary.

Of course, when it comes to ethics, things get a little more complicated; but however much we imbue companies with human traits, it remains nonsense to talk, in the literal sense, of corporate ethics. A company is not a person. It cannot think, or plot, or learn right from wrong. A multinational does not discharge a Dr Evil-type cackle before deliberately swindling the third world, however much we may like to believe that it does. A corporate entity does not have moral agency, and is therefore not capable of acting either ethically or unethically – and in talking about companies in these terms I can’t help but feel that we are missing the point.

Because it is not companies that behave badly, but people. If, as seems likely, Rio Tinto and Syngenta were guilty of wrong-doing in the past, we should blame those individuals who were in charge at the time, not the empty shell represented by the corporate entity itself. And the great thing about this is that the people who make up a company are constantly changing. In a very literal sense, the Rio Tinto of the 1980s is not the Rio Tinto of today, regardless of timeless branding and a reputation that hangs around like a bad smell.

As such, it is important, I think, that we let new evolutions of old companies make amends for the sins of their predecessors – and in the business of science, universities are key to this process. We are all very quick to criticise Rio for the damage that their mines have done in the past, so we should be equally quick to celebrate the £6m that they have recently invested in Imperial to help develop “the mine of the future”.

Nevertheless, we should go into such collaborations with our eyes open. Like any relationship, commercial partnerships require compromise, and while universities hold some of the cards, it is naïve to think that academic research is truly independent when funded by industry. Whether or not we are willing to accept this probably depends on our university’s choice of partner. So, while it would be foolish to condemn all such relationships, it would be wise to keep a close eye on who Imperial, like the rest of science, is getting into bed with.

Otherwise, we might get a nasty shock when we wake up.

Image: flickr | Eyes on Rights