“Frackademics” – Case study 1: University funding and NERC’s CDT for Oil and Gas

Case study 1: University funding and NERC’s CDT for Oil and Gas

Doctoral research is a gateway to holding senior positions in academia. Therefore the availability of funding to support doctoral research represents a way in which those providing funding can skew the academic agenda in the future – favouring certain fields of research over others.

There are seven research councils in the UK [4] supporting over 50,000 researchers, 19,000 doctoral students, 14,000 research staff, and 2,000 research fellows in UK universities and research institutes. Recently the Government has sought greater industry funding for academic research projects by encouraging more corporate involvement – as an alternative to the full privatisation [5] initially considered during the Government’s early “bonfire of the Quangos” [6].

The Government is part-funding the UK research councils to set up ‘Centres for Doctoral Training’ [7] – CDTs. These distribute funding provided by the Government [8] and their industry partners to doctoral students. In addition, CDTs act as centres to organise links between students and industry, as well as organising seminars and other events. Most of the new CDTs were established through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and one was established through the Natural Environment Research Council [9] (NERC).

NERC is Britain’s première science research institute for the natural environment. It is funded by a grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. NERC’s institutes were also slated for privatisation [10], though now it looks as if they will move towards seeking private operators for the public assets controlled by NERC.

The mission of NERC is expressed as [11]

To place environmental science at the heart of responsible management of our planet.

The heart of ‘responsible’ management (they do not use the word, ‘sustainable’) is anticipating activities which would damage the natural environment. Why would NERC lead a project which arguably could damage the viability of our future environment? – through pollution, as well as through increasing carbon emissions as a result of developing a new source of fossil fuels.

The NERC CDT in Oil and Gas [12] was established in 2013 to train the next generation of geoscientific and environmental researchers in oil and gas. It comprises: seven ‘core academic partners’ – the universities of Aberdeen, Durham, Heriot-Watt, Imperial College London, Manchester, Oxford, and the British Geological Survey; twelve ‘associate academic partners’ – the universities of Birmingham, Cardiff, Dundee, Exeter (which incorporates the former Camborne School of Mines), Glasgow, Keele, Newcastle, Nottingham, Royal Holloway, Southampton, Strathclyde and the National Oceanography Centre (which comprises sites in Southampton and Liverpool); and nine industry sponsors – British Gas, BP, ConocoPhilips, E.On, Maersk Oil, OMV, Shell, Statoil and Total.

The CDT’s administration is based at Heriot-Watt University.

The diagram above maps the relationship between NERC and its partners in the CDT. In addition, the diagram maps the fossil fuel industry’s funding of other major academic institutes and projects [13]. There are four research projects with specific relevance to unconventional fossil fuels shown in the diagram [14].

In addition to the above, Cuadrilla Resources also has a contract with Salamander – a company founded out of the University of Manchester [15] – to carry out monitoring of their activities in Lancashire. The funding to develop the equipment used in this work, licensed from Manchester through Salamander, was provided by NERC.

Finally, Cluff Geothermal – part of the group including Cluff Natural Resources, which has recently signed an agreement [16] with Halliburton to trial underground coal gasification (UCG) in Britain – funds the universities of Glasgow and Newcastle to carry out research. A proportion of this research has application in unconventional fossil fuels exploitation as well as geothermal energy.

This network of funding, totalling a few hundred million pounds over the lifetime of these projects, is becoming the norm in academia. It is part of a much greater pattern of fossil fuel industry involvement [17] including not just funding, but also the exchange of staff and the awarding of honorary positions for senior executives to reward that support.

Industry involvement in academia can be a positive measure – producing graduates who have the required knowledge and expertise. However, as noted at the beginning, this also has the capacity to skew the type of research carried out by academic institutions for years, potentially a few decades into the future.

Right now there is a debate surrounding ‘stranded’ or ‘unburnable’ fossil fuels. A recent report [18] stated that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 to meet the target of restricting warming to 2°C. Arguably the CDT for Oil and Gas will perpetuate an industry which should be wound down.

We do not need to undertake research to find yet more fossil fuels – we already have more than enough proven fossil fuel reserves to breach climatic limits. In which case, why does the Government fund institutes to carry out to research to discover or produce yet more fossil fuels? Given the ecological restrictions, fossil fuels production is an industry with no future. Why then do universities devote so much effort to supporting this research?


[4]    About Us, Research Councils UK – http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/about/aboutrcs/

[5]    Willetts reluctant to privatise research council institutes, Research, 7th November 2014 – http://www.researchresearch.com/index.php?option=com_news&template=rr_2col&view=article&articleId=1345271

[6]    Wikipedia: ‘2010 UK quango reforms’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_UK_quango_reforms

[7]    Centres for Doctoral Training, EPSRC – http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/skills/students/centres/

[8]    Osborne announces 22 new Centres for Doctoral Training, EPSRC, 28th March 2014 – http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/newsevents/news/newcdts/

[9]    Natural Environment Research Council – http://www.nerc.ac.uk/

[10]    NERC research centres ‘safe from full privatisation’, Times Higher Education, 21st January 2014 – http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/nerc-research-centres-safe-from-full-privatisation/2010714.article

[11]    Vision, NERC – http://www.nerc.ac.uk/about/whatwedo/vision/

[12]    NERC CDT for Oil & Gas – http://www.nerc-cdt-oil-and-gas.ac.uk/

[13]    Institute for Petroleum Engineering, Heriot-Watt University – http://www.pet.hw.ac.uk/
Sustainable Gas Institute, Imperial College London – http://www.sustainablegasinstitute.org/
Durham Energy Institute, Durham University – https://www.dur.ac.uk/dei/
Industry partners, Durham Energy Institute – https://www.dur.ac.uk/dei/partners/
Shell-Oxford Research Collaboration – http://shell.earth.ox.ac.uk/
BP International Centre for Advanced Materials, University of Manchester – http://www.icam-online.org/
Modelling and Simulation Centre – http://www.mace.manchester.ac.uk/our-research/centres-institutes/masc/
The BP Institute, University of Cambridge – http://www.bpi.cam.ac.uk/
Schlumberger Gould Research Centre, University of Cambridge – http://www.slb.com/about/rd/research/sgr.aspx
Shale Gas Hub, University College London – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/earth-sciences/research/shale-gas-hub/

[14]    ReFINE Project – https://www.dur.ac.uk/refine/
Fluvial Systems Research Group – http://www.abdn.ac.uk/geosciences/departments/geology/fsrg-934.php
Fluvial & Eolian Research Group, University of Leeds – http://frg.leeds.ac.uk/
Lancashire monitoring, BGS – http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/energy/shalegas/lancashireMonitoring.html

[15]    Salamander: New research capabilities create novel commercial water and gas monitoring devices, University of Manchester, 2013 – http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=16235

[16]    Cluff Natural Resources Signs Memorandum of Understanding with Leading Oilfield Services Company, CNR plc, 13th February 2015 – http://www.cluffnaturalresources.com/documents/HalliburtonMOU13.02.15FINAL.pdf

[17]    Knowledge and Power: Fossil Fuel Universities, Platform, People & Planet and 350.org, October 2013 –http://bit.ly/fossilfuelunis

[18]    The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2°C, Nature, vol. 517 pp.187-190, 8th January 2015 – http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v517/n7533/full/nature14016.html


Case study 1: University funding and NERC’s CDT for Oil and Gas

Case study 2: Academic involvement in major shale gas studies

Case study 3: The Mackay-Stone shale gas climate impacts study

Case study 4: The Science Media Centre and the ‘seeding’ of articles

Case study 5: Guardian ‘open letter’ from academics

Case study 6: The interrelationship between the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Gas and Oil and The Task Force on Shale Gas

Appendix: Information sources for case study diagrams


This report has been commissioned by Talk Fracking

Produced February 2015 by Paul Mobbs Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
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© 2015 Paul Mobbs/Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
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All Internet links listed in this report were accessed during late January/early February 2015.

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