Sponsors' rights and wrongs

January 12, 1996

I am interested in the views of other readers on the commercial sponsorship of learned societies. The Royal Geographical Society is embroiled in a controversy because it receives Pounds 40,000 sponsorship per annum from Shell. At its recent annual conference in Glasgow, a heated debate took place on a motion to end the sponsorship immediately. The majority believed that Shell's environmental record in Nigeria was shameful, and that it was implicated in its support for the Nigerian government and its execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight others last December.

The motion was passed by about 150 in favour to ten against, though the council of the RGS is not obliged to act on this.

In my view it is inappropriate that learned societies receive commercial sponsorship because the donor is thereby granted legitimacy and approval from the bodies to which they give. This is not an issue of the companies trying to influence the societies (there is no evidence of that in Shell's case), though it is possible that self-censorship in the societies can result from this circumstance. It is that sponsorship is seen by outsiders to imply approval of the company (and therefore of its policies and activities) by the learned society.

Some speakers at the Glasgow meeting pointed out that the RGS represents British geography around the world. It also has to recruit its next generation of members from those in schools and universities today. The impression of the society and its ability (in the words of its stated objectives) to "act as an authoritative voice representing and promoting geography and geographers in Britain and overseas" must be severely undermined.

The RGS seems to have linked up with some unfortunate partners, having corporate sponsorship not only from Shell but also British Airways (successfully sued in 1995 for its "dirty tricks" campaign against Virgin Airlines).

Some "realists" might argue that sponsorship is inevitable and essential in today's financial climate, and that it would be hard to find any large international company that is free of taint. But this is surely no excuse.

While it would be ludicrous to claim that science can ever be completely free of influences that might divert it from an independent path (the greatest obviously being government funding itself), it is surely right to reduce as many of those potential limitations as is possible, especially when they are of a commercial character. The criterion should be that if it cannot be done without sponsorship then do not do it.

Terry Cannon

Reader in third world development studies

University of Greenwich

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