Geography ethics row

January 12, 1996

Concern over corporate sponsorship by Shell following the execution of environmental activists in Nigeria has uncovered academic tensions within Europe's largest geographical society.

Only a year ago, the 2,000-member Institute of British Geographers re-merged with the 11,000-member Royal Geographical Society after a 60-year split. But some academics are now questioning the ethos of the merged society.

The RGS includes a broad range of people with an interest in geography. The IBG broke away to form a professional academic society. One impetus towards re-merger was that the RGS had more political clout, particularly with the Government and research councils. It also had more resources, although ironically, it is external funding which has precipitated the disquiet.

A meeting of the research and higher education division during the society's annual conference at Strathclyde University voted overwhelmingly for a motion demanding that the society immediately axe Shell as a corporate patron. The executed activists had campaigned against Shell's activities in Nigeria.

But there was frustration among delegates since, although the forum was indistinguishable from the former IBG annual general meeting, it had no constitutional status, and decisions depend on the society's council meeting in mid-March.

There was concern over corporate sponsorship inherited through the RGS, which nets the merged society around Pounds 160,000 annually, a tenth of its income.

Ron Johnston, professor of geography at Bristol University, said: "I don't believe any corporate sponsor gives money in a disinterested way. I'm concerned that it is inappropriate for a learned society to have corporate sponsorship. It must live off its own resources and its own members' activities."

David Gilbert of Royal Holloway College who moved the motion said there had been disquiet about potential incompatibility between the two from the start. "The issue of Shell pushed through the tensions rather earlier than might otherwise have happened." Those supporting the merger had felt the need of a strong voice for geography, he said. "But if that one voice talks with many tongues, you've got a problem."

Some academics were talking about a new split if the council fails to act, said Roger Lee, editor of Transactions of the IBG. The council has already pledged a review of corporate patronage, chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell, warden of Green College, Oxford.

* The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals is unlikely to agree to sanctions against Nigeria in response to an appeal by the Association of University Teachers, a spokesman said.

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