‘Disappointing and patronising’: scientists rebut Science Museum chair’s defence of fossil fuel sponsors

  • Leading scientists call out Science Museum Group’s chair Dame Mary Archer for claiming reasonable objections are ‘false attacks’
  • Letter pushes back against museum’s claims new sponsor Adani Green Energy is unconnected to its parent company’s coal operations and that a problematic ‘gagging clause’ is ‘standard’
  • One of UK’s leading scientists, Sir David King, also calls on museum to reconsider its fossil fuel partnerships

70 scientists and former contributors to the Science Museum Group (SMG) have written to its chair, Dame Mary Archer, debunking her defense of the museum’s controversial partnerships with major fossil fuel companies. The signatories signed an open letter last month saying they will not work with the SMG until it announces a moratorium on fossil fuel partnerships following controversy over its recent sponsorship deals with Shell and Adani Green Energy. They have now chosen to speak out again after Archer responded by branding reasonable objections to the museum’s stance on sponsorship as ‘false attacks’, in a letter sent to several of the signatories and made public for the first time today. 

The group includes many eminent scientists and science professionals that have worked with the SMG in the past, including former chair of the IPCC Sir Robert Watson, former Co-Director of the Grantham Institute Prof Joanna Haigh, Chair of Biochemistry of Solar Energy at Imperial and Fellow of the Royal Society Prof Alfred William Rutherford, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at UCL Paul Ekins and broadcaster Chris Packham. They have made their rebuttal as former Chief Scientific Advisor to the government Sir David King has also spoken out against the museum’s partnerships with fossil fuel companies in today’s Guardian, saying:

“You need to lay down your conditions before giving credit to them in the Science Museum. One of those conditions should be a commitment to no further investment in oil discovery and no further investment in [oil and gas] infrastructure – that is a relatively simple thing and would have a very significant impact.”

In response to November’s open letter, Archer wrote to just a handful of the signatories in a bid to defend the sponsorship deals, claiming the museum had been subjected to ‘incorrect claims’ and ‘false attacks’, and offering to meet. The signatories have chosen to respond to her collectively, writing to her yesterday to debunk several points she makes:

1. Adani Green Energy’s connections to the Adani Group’s coal operations

Archer says that ‘incorrect claims’ have been made about the newly announced sponsor of the Energy Revolution Gallery, Adani Green Energy, which she argues is independent from the other firms that form the Adani Group and should therefore not be criticised for being linked to coal mining.

The signatories respond that Adani Green Energy:

‘is an integrated part of the wider Adani Group, which is involved in major coal mining activities in India, Indonesia and Australia. The entire Adani brand will benefit and gain legitimacy through its association with the SMG. You signed the sponsorship agreement with the Chairman of the Adani Group, who is also chair of Adani Green Energy, just one demonstration of the absence of any meaningful separation between the two. It is disappointing and, frankly, patronising to suggest that those raising concerns about the SMG partnering with a company with links to the coal industry have somehow misunderstood the situation.’

2. Working with fossil fuel companies

Archer argues that:

‘Given the enormous expertise and wealth tied up in major energy companies, they need to play a much bigger role in urgent change to prevent a climate catastrophe. This potential explains the position taken by the Science Museum Group over the past decade that it would be counter-productive to rule out engaging with the entire sector.’

The signatories respond that:

‘you are conflating ‘engagement’ with the endorsement that comes from ‘financial sponsorship’ and ‘public branding’… The fossil fuel-producing companies you are endorsing have track records of denial, delay and obfuscation, as well as clear weaknesses and loopholes within their current decarbonisation plans which many agree are insufficient.’

They share the concerns of former SMG trustee Hannah Fry who wrote in the Times that ‘by allowing such public ties with these companies, I worry that the Science Museum gives the false impression that scientists believe the current efforts of fossil fuel companies are sufficient to avoid disaster.’  This, say the signatories:

‘clearly conflicts with the SMG’s role in promoting the public’s understanding of science. Indeed, a flagship for science should not be brushing off the concerns of scientists about the reputational damage being done to science as a whole, as well as the detrimental impact that defending the fossil fuel industry will have on the young people who make up such a key part of your audience.’ 

3. The non-disparagement or ‘gagging’ clause

Archer criticises:

‘false claims made, including the unfounded allegation that a standard, reciprocal commercial clause, which appears in most sponsorship contracts the museum has signed, has ‘gagged’ our curatorial teams. This is not true. Our sponsorship agreements in no way impinge on the research, collecting, curation or interpretation carried out by our curators for exhibitions and galleries, nor on the content of our events.’

The signatories state that ‘we believe the clause to be compromising, unnecessary and unwise in this particular context’ and take Archer to task on her misrepresentation of the concerns that have been raised:

‘The integrity of the SMG’s excellent curators has not been called into question. We are certainly concerned about the potential for curatorial self-censorship but this is just one worrying consequence. We are much more concerned by the recent examples of yourself and Sir Ian Blatchford’s lack of impartiality when publicly defending these fossil fuel companies from reasonable criticism – sometimes appearing to use the companies’ own talking points to do so. The clause therefore appears to be obliging the museum’s leadership to defend Shell and Adani from criticism when these are companies that are involved in highly damaging activities such as coal mining on Indigenous lands in India, Australia and Indonesia and seismic testing off the fragile coast of South Africa.’

4. Engaging with critics

Finally the letter calls on Archer and the museum to be:

‘open to reasonable criticism rather than responding with defensiveness to the substance of concerns that your own advisors and those of the wider scientific community have raised. We hope you are now willing to engage with your critics in a genuine and meaningful way; not just scientists but the Indigenous communities and young people who have raised deeply-held concerns and been brushed off.’

It reiterates the open letter’s request that the SMG commit to a moratorium on partnerships with fossil fuel producing companies. The signatories offer to meet with Archer, represented by a small group, on the record, to discuss their concerns further.  

This follows the museum’s controversial announcement in October that Adani Green Energy – a subsidiary of Adani Group which is heavily involved in coal production in India, Australia and Indonesia – will sponsor its new ‘Energy Revolution’ Gallery. Since then:

  • Two of the SMG’s trustees have resigned from the Board of Trustees over its stance on fossil fuel sponsorship and, as one of them, Dr Hannah Fry explained in The Times, its unwillingness to engage with “reasonable voices calling for change”. This followed the museum’s former director Prof Chris Rapley resigning from the Science Museum’s Advisory Board over fossil fuel partnerships a few weeks earlier. 
  • Representatives of Indigenous communities impacted by Adani’s coal mining in India, Indonesia and Australia have written to the SMG calling on it to ‘listen to Indigenous people’ on the impacts of its sponsors, after SMG Director appeared on BBC Front Row and was dismissive of Indigenous concerns about Adani’s controversial Carmichael coal mine in Australia. 
  • Channel 4 News revealed that the Science Museum’s sponsorship contract with Adani Green Energy includes a “gagging clause” identical to one signed with the oil giant Shell earlier this year, which triggered a major backlash among the scientific community. 
  • Documents released following a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) suggest that the new sponsorship deal was negotiated with parent company the Adani Group – which is heavily involved in coal expansion on Indigenous lands in India, Indonesia and Australia – which also provided specific guidance to the museum’s Director on how to counter criticism of its Carmichael mine.
  • The Science Museum has been hit by several protests by Extinction Rebellion, and youth climate activists UKSCN London occupied the museum overnight
  • The museum has been forced to remove youth strike placards from its Shell-sponsored ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition after some of the young people who donated the placard complained that they had not been informed about the sponsor.

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