There needs to be “recognition and commitment” to the role of the fossil fuel industry in the global green energy transition, the new chancellor of the University of Oxford has said.
Professor Irene Tracey wants the university to be a leader in what she called “the most pressing issue of our time”.
At the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday at the Sheldonian Theater, she announced her intention to make the University of Oxford a center for interdisciplinary research into finding climate solutions.
But in an interview with the PA news agency, she stressed the need to include scientific expertise and financial support from oil companies.
She also said she would commission an independent analysis of the salaries and working conditions of university staff, following several days of strikes in November and continued non-strike activities such as contract work and refusal to volunteer.
Speaking ahead of her speech, she said there were ongoing discussions with students about the need to get involved with older energy companies.
In response to a student report published last year which showed the university received more than £1.6m in funding and donations from fossil fuel companies in a single financial year, she said: “We have a decentralized structure here so each university can decide what own divestment.
“I’m more interested in how we talk to some of these industries.
“It’s less about money and donations and actually how they have to help us find solutions and put their resources into helping us find solutions because they have the resources.
“It’s about recognizing that we need to start thinking pragmatic about how we’re going to tackle this and in many ways we may have more freedom as a university sector than governments do.
“As a result, it will be very difficult to wean off oil in the short term, we can’t just do it tomorrow, we don’t have enough alternative energy to do that.
“So there has to be some degree of recognition and commitment from this industry, and they have a great science and engineering base to come up with some solutions, they also have the financial resources to do that.
“So I think it’s about educating our students, having a dialogue, realizing how we’re going to solve this problem, and recognizing that, in fact, some solutions will have to come from an industry that’s part of the problem.
“And we’re just going to have to take it and work around it.”
Oxford University guidelines on accepting donations and funding fossil fuels say that such money should only be taken “when the objective clearly relates to enabling a significant acceleration of the shift away from carbon consumption and accelerating the transition to net zero carbon emissions”.
Prof. Tracey also spoke about the role of the University of Oxford in tackling the global problem of misinformation and mistrust of expertise.
While he believes that the scientific advances and information made available during the pandemic have helped reverse the trend, there is still a long way to go.
She said: “Education and communication are key.
“One of the things we’ve been really working hard on at Oxford is making sure our young scientists learn how to communicate with different audiences and do that public engagement to expose the whole process.
“You’re also helping people understand that when scientists change their minds or say we now think that way, it doesn’t mean they’re suspicious or illegal or misunderstood, it’s just the way science is, it’s evolving and improving all the time.
“We can probably solve these problems only by getting the right information and further disclosing it, and maybe still mining it in different ways.”