How This Oil Giant Influences Curriculum at Top Dutch University
By Emma Howard
Shell also paid Erasmus University hundreds of thousands of euros for conducting research into the business climate for multinationals in the Netherlands, invoices paid in 2008 and 2009 show.
The university, which ranked 69th in the 2017 world university rankings, said it "has nothing to hide." It said that Shell has played "no formal part" in the development of its curriculum and would create a publicly available register of its corporate ties, in response to the findings.
The contract was signed in 2012 between Shell and the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), an international business school which is based at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, where Shell is headquartered. It states that RSM will provide tailored business advice to Shell, in return for cash.
The findings are published after Energydesk revealed Shell was strategically targeting young people, academics and business leaders, as part of a PR push designed to position itself as a low carbon leader—despite spending more than $7 billion on efforts to drill in the Arctic.
Universities across the world have pledged to move their own money out of oil, gas and coal, but many continue to take funding from fossil fuel giants. In 2015, top UK universities admitted to having taken millions, prompting concerns about conflicts of interest.
"A High Volume of Talented Young People"
A photograph taken last week of an abridged version of the contract, displayed in public, suggests it is still in force. Correspondence between Shell and RSM, seen by Energydesk, suggests the university is pushing for closer collaboration.
In an email, dated June 2016, to a senior executives at Shell, a staff member at RSM said:
"We would like to present to you how a broad spectrum of relevant expertise in combination with a high volume of talented young people is being 'produced' by RSM and why we should therefore strive to work towards a much more substantial strategic partnership between RSM and Shell.
The sustainable management issues around the challenges and opportunities Shell is facing match to a large extent the focus of RSM and its 7500 students and 350 researchers."
The documents were obtained through Dutch freedom of information laws and are part of a body of research conducted by Vatan Hüzeir, a sociology lecturer at Erasmus University and the director of sustainability think-tank Changerism. The study into the university's relationships with the fossil fuel industry was originally commissioned by the university, but it said the researchers had "diverted from their original brief."
The contract outlines the formation of "sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship between Shell and RSM, based on agreed and long-term objectives," under the guidance of a steering group that matches relevant academics with business areas targeted by Shell.
It states that Shell will be free to "potentially influence the design of the RSM curriculum and the profile of students who attend."
The business school will also aid Shell's recruitment efforts, it states. The career service at the business school will advertise job opportunities, hosting speakers from Shell and "organizing and facilitating company events whenever appropriate."
The full contract also states: "RSM has one of the largest research capabilities in Europe. RSM can provide research expertise to Shell (at cost), focusing on some of Shell's key interests."
New PR Strategy
Last year, Energydesk revealed Shell's new marketing strategy to position itself as a corporate leader en route to a "net-zero emissions" future.
In a leaked PR brief, Shell outlined young people, business leaders and academics as key targets for its new marketing strategy.
The Netherlands was identified as a primary market, alongside the UK, the U.S. and Canada.
It cites "energy engaged millennials" as a key target group for growing "brand loyalty," because "as the business influencers, opinion leaders, customers, employees and citizens of the future their views will become increasingly important for Shell as time goes on."
The new strategy will also "help 'open doors' in building relationships with key stakeholders in support of business objectives," it says.
But in the same document, Shell warns: "We have no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years."
In a statement published online by RSM and Erasmus University, dean Steef van der Velde said that corporations have no say in their education or research programs:
"The process of developing and formulating a curriculum is handled with great care within the university with scholars and students participating. Neither Shell nor any other company plays a formal part in this process.
"Of course, external organisations and stakeholders are involved during the accreditation process and programme evaluations. After all, the extent to which an academic programme connects to the requirements of the employment market is an important factor in students' decisions to enrol in that programme.
"Not a single part of RSM's strategy and of its execution is connected to fossil fuel companies in any way, and in no way the Advisory Board determines RSM's strategy. Curricula can be set and changed only by means of a very rigorous process that involves RSM's Programme Committees and the various accreditation organisations."
Shell responded to Energydesk's request for comment by pointing to RSM's statement on the matter.
In regard to funding research by the university, a Shell spokesperson added: "Dutch employers' organization VNO-NCW commissioned the research project in 2009 on behalf of (a group of) its members. Shell contributed financially, as was also confirmed by VNO-NCW. Multinational companies create a lot of jobs and are of great importance to the Dutch economy."
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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