There is common assumption that those of us who undertake applied research with the commercial world must be biased.
This month the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI), which I work for, came under fire in an article in The Australian newspaper.
Under the headline “Institute shy about industry cash”, the article implied the SMI has a conflict of interest as it is partly funded by the resource industry.
As a researcher I don’t speak on behalf of the institute. But I do feel strongly that I should share my approach to my work.
Far from being “shy” about industry funding and engagement, SMI is an institute that is comfortable in its role, working with partners to effect change.
Yet at the same time, there are ethical considerations that demand to be taken seriously.
Each of the SMI centres are focused on improving sustainable development in the resource sector: workplace health and safety, rehabilitation of mined land, social performance, water and energy consumption, and operational efficiency. The institute engages with the resources sector to make mining more sustainable and equitable. It sees itself as practically delivering on sustainability.
The argument was, and is, that if universities take money from the resources sector they must be doing so at the expense of an independent perspective.
Such a scepticism is healthy and to be encouraged. There is a need for vigilance about the motivations of organisations and the resources that support them, particularly in the contested space of mining.
This scepticism, even cynicism, is fuelled by very real instances of “greenwashing”. Front groups backed by industry funds can mask poor corporate performance, feign reform where no such reform exists, or manufacture “grassroots” organisations who defend the status quo (a practice sometimes called “astro-turfing”).
But SMI is not an institute that can fairly be described in this way. Even a cursory look at its research profile would reveal as much.
The institute takes a critical view of industry practice. Its applied research has a different model than that of advocacy-focused civil society or campaign organisations.
The Institute’s research questions are framed to provide knowledge that can improve environmental and social performance.
Industry funding is an investment in finding out how to mine using less energy, with less water, more safely and with better results for the community.
Industry involvement in research
In my view, the industry bodies that fund SMI are doing so not because they are enlightened entities but because governments, civil society and communities are demanding such change.
There are those within the resources sector who look for external support to mobilise change internally to improve performance.
The institute’s director, Professor Chris Moran, articulates the institute’s approach. He says that the resources sector traditionally operates in a state of “maximum revenue mining”.
The institute’s work challenges the sector to move beyond focussing on efficiency to higher levels of effectiveness and sustainability (see Figure 1).
It is his view that some of the intractable issues in the sector can be resolved through applied research across disciplines. It should focus on all resources spheres, from the legacy of abandoned mines to beyond-the-horizon visions of what the NextMine and NextWorkforce should look like.
This unashamedly reformist approach is different to the approach adopted by social movements or civil society.
But it is nonetheless complementary – so long as reform is progressively aimed toward a broader goal, in this case sustainable and equitable development.
There is an onus to go beyond simple arguments that funding equals bias. The media should understand there are multiple avenues to deliver change. But there should always be a legitimate place for commentary about influence. And commentators need to hold any organisation to the ideals it espouses.
Likewise there is an onus on SMI to explain its model of change, not just to those in the resources sector it is seeking to influence.
It needs to have an inclusive dialogue with a broader set of stakeholders about the effectiveness of its approach – ironically the things we are often telling companies they should do.