Campus 24 January 2023

‘Our debate on fossil fuel companies will be painful’

Chief Impact Officer Davide Iannuzzi decided to cancel a planned campus visit of Shell’s Energy Transition Campus Amsterdam after a pronounced opinion piece of four VU scientists. Now, he wants to hold a VU-wide debate on this topic.
BY Bryce Benda PICTURE Yvonne Compier

The night after talking to the activistic scientists, Davide Iannuzzi couldn’t sleep. “It was a very constructive conversation, but also very challenging. You may call it naive, but I was convinced that by inviting Energy Transition Campus Amsterdam (Ecta), I did something good for the environment and for my colleagues. It was the discussion with the scientists that put me in the direction of calling it off, even though everything was already organized in detail. It was a challenging moment, but it was the right decision.”

Being Chief Impact Officer, Iannuzzi knows it’s not his role to give any judgement on what position is correct or not. Still, he constantly tries to reflect on whether he’s doing the right things for the VU Amsterdam community. “If I were convinced that inviting Ecta was the right thing to do, that we had enough consultation before getting them on campus, I would not have pulled it off because of people protesting. I think the activists helped me – in a process that was already ongoing – in understanding that I didn’t have enough feedback from the campus and that I needed that feedback before any further action.” 

Chief Impact Officer
Davide Iannuzzi started as Chief Impact Officer in January 2022. In this newly developed position, Iannuzzi is responsible for all valorisation at VU Amsterdam. And that encompasses a wide range of aspects, he says. “I try to help scientists and students with reaching out to society, but we’re also working on start-ups, collaborations with companies, policy-making, and cooperating with other universities.”  

Safe space

Iannuzzi talked to the executive board, who agreed that they should find out what the campus thinks of this issue. “That’s why we’re currently collecting opinions among stakeholders, such as faculties, students, researchers and the work council. And anyone who wants to give feedback can write a one-pager to me, and I promise that everyone will be heard.” In addition to collecting opinions, Iannuzzi will also organise a VU-wide open conversation on February 23 from 12 to 2 p.m.  “We still have to find the right format for this, because we don’t want a fight. We want an open dialogue in a safe space, where people feel safe to say what they want, without being criticized. What I’m really aiming at – that’s my dream – is to have a dialogue where people listen to each other and take some time to reflect on other people’s position.”

Listening mode

And Iannuzzi’s personal opinion? “Who am I, as a trained physicist who never looked into fossil fuel, to tell you that there are other companies we should collaborate with. Or that we have to work together with the fossil industry. I want to enter this debate in a listening mode. I’m talking to a lot of people these days, I see value in all the positions that are put forward.” According to Iannuzzi, positions in both directions are quite radical. “There are people who have the same opinion as the activists, you can see their flow of thought – there is a lot of logic there. Then you talk to people who have the opposite view, who say that to contribute to a better future, we need players from the fossil fuel industry. Some also say that it is a bit hypocritical to deny collaborations with companies we all use the products of. There are some good points in that reasoning as well.”

‘We’re all here to try to get a better future’

Complex discussion

An open discussion sounds nice, but do activists and realists even speak the same language? “That’s the key point. You see these kinds of friction everywhere in society. What I would really like is to smooth out this friction, to not have the activists versus the others. Because we’re all here to try to get a better future, that’s what anyone says I talk to. Still, finding common ground is a big challenge, and everyone agrees it’s a complex discussion. What I’m trying to do is to give the activists the floor to have their voices heard, but the same holds for other parties. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s going to be painful, but eventually, we’re on the same side of the table.”

Iannuzzi is passionate to do the right thing. “We as a university have a commitment to make the world a better place. That’s also in our strategic plan. I always like to think of overall utility, meaning what is the best behaviour that we can have to generate a maximum impact. We must find a proper way in which what we do, we maximize the positive impact that we have on society for the long-term.”

Should VU Amsterdam work together with the fossil industry or not? Send your thoughts – not more than one page – to The deadline is 12 February.  



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