Scientist Chris Rapley, who led the Science Museum from 2007 to 2010, has stepped down from the institution’s advisory board over its stance on oil and gas sponsorship.
After being contacted by activists from the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN), Rapley - now professor of climate science at UCL - wrote back last week to tell them that he had decided to resign from the board.
Rapley’s decision marks a turnaround from his tenure as director, when he oversaw and defended a sponsorship deal with Shell to fund the museum’s Atmosphere Gallery.
In his letter to the UKSCN, he said there were “powerful arguments” for influential bodies such as the Science Museum Group (SMG) to work with oil and gas companies in the transition to a carbon-free global energy system.
“It is a matter of judgment whether uncompromising public protest or ‘soft diplomacy and persuasion’ offer the best way to influence their actions,” he said. “The Science Museum Group has adopted the latter approach and I respect the group’s right to arrive at that decision.
“However, given the reality of the climate crisis, the need to abolish fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and analyses such as the recent Carbon Tracker Report which bring into question the commitment of the oil and gas companies to do so, I disagree with the group’s ongoing willingness to accept oil and gas sponsorship.”
Rapley said he hoped the SMG would “reconsider its position” in due course.
Rapley’s resignation comes after a backlash against the Science Museum’s decision to make Shell the main sponsor of its Our Future Planet exhibition on carbon capture, which has drawn criticism from climate scientists, exhibition contributors and high profile campaigners such as Greta Thunberg.
Director and chief executive of the SMG, Ian Blatchford, said: “I’m deeply grateful for the support and advice Chris has provided to this institution over many years and his ongoing support for our work engaging people on the vital issue of climate change. We respect his decision to step down from his advisory role and he will remain a critical friend, his view much valued in our assessments.”
Ella Ticktin-Smith, a UCL student and member of UKSCN London, said: “We congratulate Chris Rapley for taking this powerful stance and we encourage other members of the board to speak out as well.
“It’s a shame that the Science Museum continues to prioritise its relationships with a small number of the world’s most polluting fossil fuel companies over its relationships with scientists, young people, staff, visitors and its own advisors. We urge the museum to commit to ending its sponsorship deals with Shell, BP and Equinor before it destroys its reputation irreversibly.”
The development comes as the UK prepares to host the Cop26 conference in Glasgow next month, where world leaders hope to agree global solutions to the climate crisis. The SMG has made the climate crisis a major part of its public programming in the run up to the conference, and earlier this year announced a target to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2033.
The Science Museum advisory board is an internally appointed group that supports and advocates for the museum’s work.