Research Ethics and the Norwegian Oil Industry
In 2014, researchers and students at University of Bergen questioned the university's research cooperation with the nation's oil industry, Statoil. The rector asked the Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) for advice, which it provided in a public report.
NENT provides a variety of resources for Norwegian scientists and engineers and other researchers to address issues of integrity, protection of research participants, and social responsibility. Among them are ethics guidelines, adopted in 2008 and revised in 2016. This guidance identifies obligations of research to society that include:
- Research has an independent responsibility for the role it plays in social developments.
- Research should be compatible with sustainable development.
- Research has a responsibility to contribute to greater global justice.
The questions the rector posed to NENT were as follows: Is our cooperation with the oil industry ethically questionable? Is petroleum research questionable in light of global warming?
A press release summarizing results of the inquiry reported the NENT conclusion from the Chair as follows: “It is indefensible from a research ethics perspective if petroleum research hinders processes of transition to sustainable energy and thus prevents achievement of UN climate goals which Norway has pledged to uphold.”
Answering these questions adequately requires the collection of factual information and the interpretation of those facts, and recognition that some factual evidence may be lacking while the decision needs to be made. It also requires recognition of the relevant ethics guidelines that can and should be applied to developing these answers. The boundaries of factual information to be collected are affected by the identity of the ethical guidelines.
- What factual information needs to be collected to answer the questions?
- Are the ethical guidelines above the right ones to use in this inquiry? Should others be applied?
- Does this conclusion satisfy the ethical guidance in the three principles above? Is it feasible for researchers to apply these principles to their activities? Is it likely?
The entire NENT statement can be found at: etikkom.no/en/news/news-archive/2015/nents-assessment-of-research-ethics-in-petroleum-research/regarding-the-assessment-of-research-ethics-in-petroleum-research/. Last updated: Sunday, October 19, 2014; accessed on July 18, 2017.
Considering the full NENT statement, can you identify one or two positions in it that rely on one or another of the three principles above for their justification? Can you identify what principles were affecting what information the committee collected? Did the committee collect the information it needed to answer the questions?
Author: Rachelle Hollander, July 18, 2017 – from slides presented by Rune Nydal, OEC international experts meeting, June 1-2, 2017.
Reviewers: Rune Nydal, August 7, 2017 and Thomas Powers, September 20, 2017.
The conclusion reached by the Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) committee challenges an ideology and ethics of inevitability present in fossil fuel industries. The anthropologist Laura Nader first identified an ideology of inevitability during her service on the US National Academy of Science’s Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems (CONAES). Her observations led her to identify the implicit cultural assumptions animating much policymaking, from ‘group think’ and a rejection of energy conservation and ‘soft paths’ like solar energy to an ‘inevitability syndrome’ that excluded from consideration models that did not rest on ever-expanding resource use.
Since then, anthropologists such as David Hughes and Chelsea Chapman and historians such as Matthew Huber have similarly found professionals in the oil and gas industry, including scientists and engineers, expressing positions that defend fossil fuels on the grounds that our society will always require them. Hughes in particular argues that this position is an ethical one. He starts with the position that oil is immoral because the ‘contemporary great evil of dumping carbon dioxide into the skies’ hastens global climate change that harms the environment and vulnerable populations (2016: 14). Therefore, he argues, treating oil production and consumption as inevitable is also an immoral position, since it allows climate change to continue unabated without considering how energy can be conserved or produced in more carbon-neutral methods. By concluding that petroleum research would be indefensible if it hindered transitions to sustainable energy, the NENT challenged prevailing assumptions that continued reliance on oil is inevitable. But rather than discourage petroleum research in its entirety, the committee also acknowledged that petroleum research ‘still has a role to play in the transition process, for example by establishing a defensible balance between research on various energy sources in which the key constituents are research on renewable energy and on how negative impacts on the ecology can be reduced.’
The challenge and opportunity lie in the nature of the ‘collaborations’ between industry and universities, given the conflicts of interest that exist when academic research is funded by companies such as Statoil. In their statement the NENT found it ‘striking that the universities do not reflect to a greater extent on their own role in possibly preserving the status quo through their collaboration with the petroleum industry,’ by prolonging and legitimizing the oil age, for example. The committee called for efforts to ensure that ‘the universities’ research and education and the special interests of business sector actors are independent of each other.’ This raises the crucial question of how university scientists and engineers could collaborate with industry to make more sustainable technologies and techniques.
Chapman, C. 2013. Multinatural resources: Ontologies of energy and the politics of inevitability in Alaska. In Cultures of Energy: Power, Practices, Technologies (eds) S. Strauss, S. Rupp and T. Love, 96–109. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Huber, M. T. 2013. Lifeblood: Oil, freedom, and the forces of capital. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.
Hughes, D. M. 2017. Energy without conscience: Oil, climate change, and complicity. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
Nader, L. 1980. Energy choices in a democratic society. Washington: National Academy of Sciences.
––––––– 2004. The harder path: Shifting gears. Anthropological Quarterly 77, 771–791.
This case illustrates a role ethical committees may play as a catalyst for public debates. NENT was established in 1990 as one of three independent committees by the Norwegian government, and the Ministry of Education appoints the members (etikkom.no/en/). One objective is to stimulate better, more informed, public debate on research ethical issues. How can a committee make this happen? Traditional ways to do this are to arrange public meetings, write reports, edit academic papers and formulate research ethical codes. Such initiatives may or may not make a difference, depending on the uptake of the committee’s work, their relevance and legitimacy.
In this case, the committee made a difference simply by being an established institution one could turn to, with capacities to open and extend a debate further. The critics of petroleum research could refer to NENT’s research ethical codes that included issues of social responsibility and sustainability. And the rector could turn to NENT for advice on how to interpret these. NENT in turn, were able to engage relevant stakeholders at the national level. Given the formal role of NENT, the committee could send questions to rectors at the main universities, The Research Council of Norway, relevant ministries and Statoil — and expect an answer. All correspondences are publicly available. NENT assessed the answers given and offered the public statement also informed by ongoing public discussions during the period NENT worked on the case. The fact that NENT considered the ethics of petroleum research was news in Norway, being an oil producing country. The stakeholders were waiting for the statement, and asked for comments in national media and locally arranged debates at the universities. It is hard to think that the debate would have become so vivid nationally if the committee had not been there as a catalyzer for concerns found in many different sectors of the Norwegian research system.