Vice-Chancellor response to conflict of interest reports

17 October 2014

The following Letter to the Editor from ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young was published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 October 2014.

In an article in The Australian Financial Review on 15 October concerning the decision by ANU to divest a small part of its investment portfolio, it was indicated that I, as Vice-Chancellor of the University had declared a potential conflict of interest to Council on the divestment issue.

My declared conflict of interest is no secret. It was the subject of an article in The Australian newspaper on 12 May 2014. As well as being Vice-Chancellor, I remain a very active researcher including presently being a Chief Investigator on two Australian Research Council Discovery grants. My field of research is Physical Oceanography with a focus on extreme oceanic conditions. In particular, I have an international reputation for my work on ocean wave climate and extreme ocean waves under storm conditions. During my career, I have provided advice to the offshore oil and gas industry on extreme conditions for the safe design of offshore structures.

As the university was developing a Socially Responsible Investment policy I felt that my involvement with the industry could be seen as a conflict of interest. In particular, I was concerned that I might be seen as having bias in favour of the industry. As a result, I declared a conflict of interest to University management and then to University Council in October 2013. Hence, I was not involved in the development of the policy or its operationalisation. Nevertheless, I do support the adopted policy and the decisions of the University Council.

I appreciate that people might ask how I reconcile providing advice to the offshore oil and gas industry and my stated views on the impacts of fossil fuels? As I have publicly stated, fossil fuels are going to be around for decades to come. Although they do environmental harm, we presently do not have alternatives. I hope we can transition to these alternatives as soon as possible and that Australia is a technological leader in the carbon constrained world. In the meantime, our offshore oil and gas industry needs the highest quality information on environmental conditions to operate safely. Overseas, failure of offshore facilities under extreme storm events has resulted in catastrophic environmental damage. As such, I hope that my research plays its small part in preserving our marine environment.

Professor Ian Young AO

Vice-Chancellor

The Australian National University