Leading scientists pledge ‘not to work with’ Science Museum until fossil fuel partnerships end

Today an open letter has been published, signed by many prominent scientists and contributors to the Science Museum Group, announcing they will not work with the organisation until it commits to ending its partnerships with fossil fuel companies. This follows the museum’s controversial announcements in April that oil and gas giant Shell would sponsor its flagship ‘Our Future Planet’ climate exhibition and then in October, that Adani Green Energy – a subsidiary of Adani Group which is heavily involved in coal production – will sponsor its new ‘Energy Revolution’ Gallery. The letter remains open for any former or potential contributors to add their names, here.

The letter states:

‘Many of us have excellent personal relationships with the talented and committed members of staff that deliver the Science Museum’s programme but we can no longer be complicit in the policies adopted by the Group’s senior leadership and trustees. With sadness therefore, we commit not to work with any organisations in the Science Museum Group until it announces a moratorium on partnerships with fossil-fuel-producing companies. This means publicly committing not to renew any existing contracts when they expire, or to form any new ones until, at the very least, the company demonstrates a credible plan for phasing out fossil fuels in line with the Paris 1.5°C target.’

The 60 signatories (click here to see the full list) include many who have worked with the Group in the past, as speakers, advisors, contributors to exhibitions, participants in events and festivals, and members of staff. They include:

Many leading scientists, such as:

  • Sir Robert Watson – Professor Emeritus, University of East Anglia, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
  • Prof Susan Michie – Professor of Health Psychology and a member of SAGE
  • Prof Paul Ekins OBE – Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy, University College London and former Co-Director of the UK Energy Research Centre
  • Prof Alfred William Rutherford – Chair of Biochemistry of Solar Energy at Imperial and Fellow of the Royal Society
  • Prof Mike Berners-Lee – Professor of Sustainability at Lancaster University, who consulted on the Science Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery

Experts in climate change, who spoke recently in the Science Museum Group’s series of Climate Talks in the run-up to COP26:

  • Prof Joanna Haigh – Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Physics, Imperial College London and former Co-Director of the Grantham Institute, who has spoken at a number of events at the museum  
  • Prof Robert Pollin – Distinguished University Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • Kira Marie Peter-Hansen – Member of the European Parliament
  • James Thornton – Founding CEO, ClientEarth

High-profile naturalists, authors and broadcasters:

  • Chris Packham – naturalist and broadcaster
  • Dara McAnulty – 17-year-old naturalist, author and environmental campaigner and multi-award winning author of Diary of a Young Naturalist
  • Dr Emily Grossman – science author, broadcaster and public speaker
  • George Monbiot – journalist, author and environmental activist who pulled out of one of the museum’s ‘Climate Talks’ earlier this year on discovering they still had partnerships with fossil fuel companies

Two scientists who contributed to the ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition and then withdrew their work when they learned it was sponsored by Shell:

  • Prof Mathias Disney – Professor of Remote Sensing, University College London Dept of Geography
  • Dr Emma J. Sayer – Reader in Ecosystem Ecology, Lancaster University

Three microplastic pollution experts who were recently approached to contribute materials to the Science Museum collection but refused because the museum had signed a ‘gagging clause’ with Shell:

  • Dr Deonie Allen – researcher, University of Strathclyde Glasgow
  • Dr Steve Allen – Dalhousie University Canada, University of Birmingham UK
  • Dr Sedat Gundogdu – Chief Scientist, Microplastic Research Group, Cukurova University

The signatories also include many people who have worked closely at or with the Science Museum Group for years and for whom this is a significant decision to pass up future work and prestigious opportunities in order to raise their concerns.

Jon Spooner, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Unlimited Theatre, which has worked extensively with Science Museum Group members over many years, and one of the initiators of the letter, said:

“We can no longer in good conscience partner with the Science Museum Group, which was a tough and incredibly sad decision to make after years of working closely with outstanding staff at all the SMG venues. It’s been clear for some time that the senior leadership and trustees are not only ignoring the reasonable concerns of its partners but respond to any questioning or criticism with condescending dismissals. That is not the quality of relationship we expect from our partners. We know from conversations with staff that while audiences continue to visit, the senior leadership simply don’t care what anyone else thinks, which is recklessly arrogant, especially as audiences become increasingly aware of the issues. The new deal with Adani is a new low. Ian Blatchford is on the wrong side of history here and his actions are causing long-term reputational damage to one of our most loved institutions.”

Jess Worth, Culture Unstained Co-Director, said:

“The Science Museum has been dismissing all critics of its fossil fuel partnerships as wilfully misinformed activists but, in reality, it is facing a profound crisis in confidence from the scientific community and losing the public’s trust. In the wake of COP26, there is no justification for providing positive PR to companies heavily involved in fossil fuel extraction but the Science Museum’s leadership remains determined to side with Shell and Adani against scientists, their own contributors, young audiences and even some of their trustees. It’s time they admitted their mistake and engaged with those who care so deeply about the museum’s future that they are willing to pass up paid work and prestigious opportunities to make their concerns heard.”

Since the Science Museum controversially announced Shell as sponsor of its current flagship climate exhibition, ‘Our Future Planet’, in April, a major backlash has unfolded with scientists, exhibition contributors, Greta Thunberg and the wider public speaking out through protests, petitions and a youth-led boycott of the exhibition. In August it was revealed by Channel 4 News, based on an investigation by Culture Unstained, that the museum had signed a ‘gagging clause’ with Shell committing not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of Shell, despite major controversy surrounding the sponsor’s climate impacts.

On October 2nd the museum’s former director Prof Chris Rapley resigned from its Advisory Board over its “willingness to accept oil and gas sponsorship” and on 30th October 2021 both mathematician and presenter Hannah Fry, and Director of the Institute for Research in Schools Jo Foster, resigned from the museum’s Board of Trustees over its stance on fossil fuel sponsorship and, as Hannah explained in The Times, its unwillingness to engage with “reasonable voices calling for change”

Youth strikers UKSCN London have mounted a concerted campaign for Shell to be dropped after discovering the museum had included placards within the Shell-sponsored exhibition from the strikes without the strike organisers’ knowledge or consent. They launched a boycott of the exhibition, worked with one of the young people who’d created the placards to get them removed from the exhibition in September and occupied the museum overnight in October. The museum has also been the target of multiple Extinction Rebellion protests, with Scientists for XR leading a 70-strong overnight occupation of the museum over the August Bank Holiday. 

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