When a curator from the Science Museum in London asked Deonie and Steve Allen whether they would like their work to be added to the museum’s permanent collection of artifacts, they jumped at the chance. The Allens are two of the world’s top microplastic hunters. The researchers—who are also married—scour the world’s most remote places for tiny specks of plastics. And when they look for microplastics, they almost always find them. The Allens have found these minute particles in Tibetan glaciers, the Pyrenees mountains, and in the air above the French Atlantic coast.
Saying yes to the Science Museum was a no-brainer. The museum, which dates back to 1857, houses one of the world’s most significant collections of scientific artifacts and draws in several million visitors each year. “It’s like being asked to write an editorial for Nature—of course we’re going to,” says Deonie Allen. The Allens spoke with one of the museum’s curators about the kinds of materials they might contribute to the collection: the tandem paraglider they were flying when they first noticed plastic particles in the air, filters they use to collect microplastic particles, and photos from their many expeditions. The researchers, who both work at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, were planning on handing over the materials in November when they returned to the United Kingdom from France.
But now the scientists are refusing to hand over their materials in protest against a controversial contract the Science Museum signed with Shell—the fourth-largest oil and gas firm in the world and the sponsor of a Science Museum exhibition about climate change. The Allens object to a clause in the contract between Shell and the Science Museum Group, the publicly funded charity that oversees the museum and four others in the UK. The clause states that the Science Museum Group must take “reasonable care” not to “make any statement or issue any publicity or otherwise be involved in any conduct or matter that may reasonably be foreseen as discrediting or damaging the goodwill or reputation of the Sponsor.” The existence of the clause was first reported by Channel 4 in July.
“That was the line in the sand for us. You can’t gag science,” says Steve Allen. The Allens emailed a letter to the curator and to the Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, outlining the reason why they had declined to have their work on atmospheric microplastics stored in the museum’s permanent archive. “When we learned that the museum had signed the gag order from Shell, we were utterly shocked,” the letter reads. “The museum has lost the essential credibility that is vital to its purpose. Every scientific paper has a conflict-of-interest statement which shows who funded the work to prove it was unbiased. The Science Museum would not be able to pass that test.” A Science Museum spokesperson confirmed that the museum had received the letter.
A third researcher who was in talks with the Science Museum to donate his samples of plastic pollution has also now backed out of the arrangement. In May, Sedat Gündoğdu, an associate professor at Çukurova University in Turkey, was asked by a Science Museum curator to send samples of plastic waste he had collected that had been removed from the UK and illegally dumped near the city of Adana. “I’m mapping the locations of these illegal activities to understand the environmental impact and effect of this illegal dumping of imported waste,” Gündoğdu says. He went as far as sending a package of samples to the Science Museum at the request of the curator, but they were held up in customs and eventually returned to Turkey.
After Gündoğdu learned about the museum’s contract with Shell, he started reconsidering his decision. On November 5 he emailed the curator letting them know that—because of the museum’s associations with Shell—he would no longer be providing samples for the collection. “I’m trying to raise awareness of climate change and the effect of climate change and how to help people fight against this issue,” says Gündoğdu. Sending his samples to the Science Museum would contradict that message, he says.
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But museum officials say the Shell sponsorship has no influence on how it collects or displays artifacts. “We entirely reject the false allegation that our curators are in any way inhibited in carrying out their vital role in an expert, independent, and thorough manner,” says a spokesperson for the Science Museum Group. The spokesperson adds that the museum retains full editorial control of the content of its exhibitions and galleries and would not agree to any relationship that constrained the pursuit of its mission in collecting material or producing exhibitions.
“Curators often discuss current research with scientists to help identify suitable items to acquire. This is just the beginning of a lengthy process which includes thorough internal discussions and research before a formal acquisition is made,” says Tilly Blyth, head of collections and principal curator at the Science Museum. “We respect the right of any individual to decide whether they want to collaborate with us by donating items to the national collection.”
Shell also denied that its sponsorship of the climate change exhibition undermines the Science Museum’s independence. “We fully respect the museum’s independence. That’s why its exhibition on carbon capture matters and why we supported it. Debate and discussion—among anyone who sees it—are essential,” says a Shell spokesperson. In 2020, Shell’s own reported greenhouse gas emissions added up to 1.38 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents—more than four times the annual emissions of the entire UK. According to the environmental charity Client Earth, Shell’s planned emissions between 2018 and 2030 alone will account for almost 1.6 percent of the entire global carbon budget, the amount of carbon that can be released into the atmosphere while still keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Science Museum has been embroiled in a series of controversies surrounding the sponsorship from Shell for its Our Future Planet exhibition, which will run until September 2022. The exhibition focuses on technologies—including carbon capture and tree planting—that might be used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but the sponsorship has attracted heavy criticism for allegedly greenwashing Shell’s significant contribution to the climate crisis. The extraction and burning of fossil fuels is the most significant contributor to the warming of the planet.
In September, the Science Museum said it would remove from the exhibition a placard created by a student for a climate protest in March 2019. The placard was collected after a march in London in which an estimated 10,000 young people gathered to protest government inaction on climate change. The decision to remove the placard was made in response to an open letter from the UK Student Climate Network, which asked that the placard be removed, as the young people who donated it had not been made aware of Shell’s sponsorship.
At the beginning of November, two members of the Science Museum Group’s Board of Trustees resigned over the museum’s new sponsorship deal with Adani Green Energy, which is owned by the Indian fossil fuel company Adani Group. The sponsorship will fund a new exhibition space called the Adani Green Energy Gallery which will focus on the transition to renewable energy. Adani Group is India’s largest private producer of coal-fired power, and has plans to double the size of its fleet of coal-fired power stations. Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, and its eventual phaseout was a major focus of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.
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“I think we’re at the point where people are starting to take more drastic action because they’ve been pushed to it,” says Jess Worth, codirector of the group Culture Unstained, which campaigns to put an end to fossil fuel sponsorship in culture and the arts. “It’s a huge problem that our national museum of science is not engaging with very reasonable concerns about partnering with some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies while we’re in the midst of a climate crisis.”
If museums keep taking money from fossil fuel companies, then the public’s trust in science will continue to be undermined, says Deonie Allen. “What [these partnerships] have done is just push that to another whole level. So not only do we not believe the scientists that are talking to the politicians, you now can’t believe what’s in a museum,” she says. “If the one thing that was supposed to be kept pure was our science museums, then we’ve lost that. We’ve got no way of proving that our science is completely unbiased.”
The Allens still have the sampling materials they originally intended to donate to the Science Museum. The researchers haven’t been approached by other institutions to preserve their materials and fear that this record of their work in microplastics may end up lost forever. “We can’t, as individual scientists, keep this record up because modern universities don’t give you that much space,” Deonie Allen says. “People tend to throw them out after five or 10 years. And that’s really sad. That’s why these sorts of archives are really useful—because at least there’s a record of how we used to do things way back when.”
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