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Universities an obstacle to climate action?

It is not a university function to ensure that research results are implemented as public policy

Letters to the Editor. Illustration: Paul Scott
The Irish Times - Letters to the Editor.

Sir, – I refer to Prof Hannah Daly’s article “Are universities an obstacle to climate action by reinforcing the status quo?” (Science, Opinion, July 4th). Prof Daly argues that universities are not doing enough to guide or force Government to take more effective and urgent action to counter global warming and advocates that the university should become much more socially active in promoting climate mitigation action.

I believe universities would be gravely mistaken to go down this road.

The function of the university is to teach the existing body of knowledge to the students, to undertake research to discover new knowledge and to make the research results publicly available.

It is not a university function to ensure that research results are implemented as public policy.


Scientific research is mostly carried out in universities. If, for example, science discovers that eating a certain food, widely assumed to be nutritious, is actually very harmful, it is not up to science and the university to ensure that sale and consumption of this food by people is strictly regulated.

This would be the obvious thing to do and science would advocate such intervention but such a decision and its implementation is the business of democratically elected Government.

All that the university can and must do is to publish its research results and promote public trust in the reliability of science.

There is an uncomfortable hint in Prof Daly’s article that university climate science should align with green ideology and participate in social activism.

But to do so would be inappropriate and dangerous and would rebound negatively on the university.

Ideology is not science and also frequently gets things wrong – remember Paul Ehrlich’s prediction (The Population Bomb) of worldwide famines and hundreds of millions of deaths in the 1970s caused by overpopulation. Science must remain free to criticise green ideology when the evidence dictates.

The university has enough to do in teaching and generating new knowledge and making it publicly available. It must maintain its reputation for accuracy, honesty and impartiality. It is up to others to make and implement national policies. – Yours, etc,


Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry,

University College Cork.