Provost’s Update: Understanding our approach to ethical research and investment

A message from the Provost to all’UCL staff and students.

Thank you to everyone who got in touch following my previous message about our approach to managing the current situation on campus and wider issues connected with the Israel-Gaza conflict.   

In that message, I set out how we are currently balancing the right to freedom of speech and protest with our responsibility to support our students and staff and how we are ensuring that our research and education activities can continue safely and without significant disruption. Since then, like many other universities in the UK and globally, we are currently experiencing a protest on our quad with tents and banners.   

Upd ate on campus protests  

I would like first to update you on action we are taking in relation to our current campus protests. We continue to maintain a dialogue with the protestors and, while respecting their right to protest, we are also reminding them of our codes of conduct including our Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech. We are also requesting that they are respectful of the needs of our wider community, particularly at a time when many are preparing for or sitting exams. We also have several significant campus-wide events coming up, which are important moments in the life of our student body and wider community. We are in the process of planning how these can take place and will keep you updated on this.  

We have, however, also seen that this protest is increasingly drawing external engagement with demonstrators conducting protests immediately outside our campus (both opposing and supporting the student protesters) and has led to some arrests on public streets. This is a situation that creates safety risks for our community, which is why we have taken the decision to continue largely to keep access to the campus to our own staff and students for the time being. As always, we are aiming to balance upholding freedom of speech, minimising the disruption and distress to our wider community and our neighbours and ensure our campus can be used by the UCL community.  

Once again, I would like to reiterate that we cannot support or facilitate protest that descends into hate speech, harassment, or bullying. I strongly encourage those who need it to reach out to our student support services , or to their line managers, to ensure that they are receiving the support that they need. I also urge anyone who feels that they have encountered speech or behaviour that they believe goes beyond legitimate discourse, or breaches our codes of conduct, to use our Report + Support channels to ensure we can take any necessary action.  

Our approach to ethical research and investment  

In terms of our wider responsibilities, I have previously set out in detail how we are approaching questions such as the role a university should play in relation to international conflicts and what it means to remain true to our foundational commitments to pluralism and to freedom of speech, as well as to diversity and to engagement across those issues that divide us.  

In that context, an issue that is frequently raised concerns the nature of our research partnerships with external organisations and the management of our endowment. Specifically, the claim is sometimes made that universities are in some way ’complicit’ with military action and the appalling human suffering that follows. In the current context, some suggest that we are in some way involved in the conflict in Israel-Gaza. Military conflict is not the only context in which this question of complicity arises but given the number of wars ongoing at any given point it is, regrettably, one that often arises.   

In approaching this question as regards research partnerships, I think it is important to begin with two foundational considerations. The first concerns the nature of technical research. Almost all technical knowledge can be used for purposes both good and malign. In perhaps the most vivid example of the day, the artificial intelligence that promises such powerful advances for our good, could also be used to increase the efficiency of those who seek to harm, whether with an offensive or a defensive purpose. It is simply not the case that we can innovate only in ways that will always be used for good once the research has been made publicly available.  

Second, our university operates on a basic principle of academic freedom. Our staff and students should be free to conduct research within the law on any subject that they choose, and in collaboration with anyone operating in any country that is not the subject of UK sanctions. So, it is not implausible that research which one member of staff or student sees as complicit in doing harm, another sees as doing good; or that a collaboration that one member of staff or student sees as unacceptable, another sees as absolutely appropriate. In a university such as ours, academic freedom is the freedom of the individual researcher to make those choices, always within the law.   

However, academic freedom is not without its limits. For over two decades, export controls have legally restricted any UCL research with partners outside the UK that involves dual-use technologies (that is, technology that could be used for both civil and military purposes). More recently, in seventeen areas of research with national security implications a stringent set of UK laws came into effect in 2022 that limit how we can collaborate with private companies, governments and other organisations outside the UK.

We therefore now undertake a due diligence assessment on all’our research applications involving new partners that considers ethical, legal, financial, and national security implications before entering a collaboration. Research that is funded through philanthropic gifts undergoes a similar evaluation led by our Gift Acceptance Committee. For those collaborations where research involves human participants, a further ethical review (led either by our own Research Ethics Committee or the UK Health Research Authority for research on patients or patient data) is required before the research can begin. Our research ethics process appropriately involves both staff and students from the university, as well as external members who ensure that a diverse range of expertise and views are considered. Together, these different layers of scrutiny ensure that ethical, legal, financial and national security implications of our research collaborations are appropriately conducted in line with our values and within the law.

Consider similarly the issue of our investments. Some argue that our endowment ought only to be invested in companies that produce technology only for the good, or perhaps that have ethical work practices of one kind or another. But for reasons like those offered in relation to research, determining what that means in practice is complicated. This is why we have an ethical investment polic y which sets out red lines in relation to companies in which we will not invest. Our two fund management companies are both signatories of the UN Six Principles for Responsible Investment. Our policy on ethical investment is overseen by the Investments Committee of Council, which includes student representation.   

I should also add that UCL research is published under , which means that it is openly available online without restriction to all readers, free from the barriers imposed by subscription access. In this way, the products of UCL research are available for all to see.   

Of course, this question of complicity is particularly current because of concerns about the Israel-Gaza conflict, and claims by some of our students and staff that we are ’participating in’ or ’funding’ that conflict in a way incompatible with our values.   Having asked our Research, Innovation and Global Engagement and Finance portfolios for an examination of these questions in relation to our research collaborations and endowment investments, I am satisfied that we are not ’participating in’ or ’funding’ any side of the Israel-Gaza conflict, either in the sense in which those words are normally used, or in contravention of our approach to ethical research and investment.

Knowing that does not, of course, lessen the burden of global conflicts for so many on our campus, especially those directly affected on all sides. Nor do I suspect that my reassurance on this issue will satisfy everyone. But it is important for everyone to remember that we have well thought through processes for research ethics and for ethical investment that operate to ensure that we both respect the principle of academic freedom and that our research and investments do as much good as possible, and our activity is compatible with our values.

As ever, please feel free to write to me on these complex and important issues at    


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