Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, former Master of King’s College Cambridge, at the Church of St. Mary the Great, aptly read to us at the funeral of Stephen Hawking, from Plato’s Apology 40 “The Death of Socrates, ‘that discusses the search for knowledge persisting beyond death.’ Lord Martin told the congregation of scholars that Professor Hawking had become a ‘cult figure’ because he embodied the idea of ‘an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos’ and this grabbed the imagination of all people.
Andrew Perne, who served as Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge five times between 1551 and 1580, has been wryly described as having demonstrated ‘ambidexterity’ and ‘ecumenical’ latitude because he was Protestant under Edward VI, Catholic under Queen Mary and a devout Anglican under Elizabeth. Today there is a little less turbulence in the world because we have managed to partially disentangle religion, politics and the State. But Perne’s temperament persists into the present, bringing to mind that even today we are called upon to make choices- as individuals and as institutions. Hawkins was a fellow at Gonville and Caius College and benefited from a University that enjoys more power over its own choices than any other university in the world. It is a self-governing community of scholars and its institutional autonomy underpins its intellectual freedom- which is the real Prize. By making its own choices, the education and the research that it produces are at their best always. So to what purpose are these valued freedoms of organisation and thought put? Like Royal Dutch Shell, it allows the institution to take the long view.
Universities were traditionally the only institutions with a purpose that required a long-term perspective and very few have the will and the ability to peer decades into the future. Former Vice Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who only retired in 2017, was always mindful that governments will always take a long view as stewards of the nation’s interest and assets, but they are always tempered by the shorter-term of political cycles.
Royal Dutch Shell envisages that by 2070 there is the potential for a very different energy system to emerge which they have dubbed the ‘The Sky Scenario’. It is what Shell believes to be a technologically, industrially, and economically possible route forward, consistent with limiting the global average temperature rise to well below 2°C from pre-industrial levels. It is a choice that has the potential to bring modern energy to all in the world, without delivering a climate legacy that society cannot readily adapt to. It is a deliberate choice to transform to a lower-carbon energy system, with the world achieving the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement which Trinidad and Tobago has ratified. The Sky Scenario forces consumers, companies and governments to make tough choices and blaze new trails towards lower-carbon energy that will vary by country and sector.
Professor George Maxwell Richards, a former President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, received a scholarship while working with the United British Oilfields of Trinidad (precursor to Shell Trinidad Ltd) to read for his Bachelor of Engineering and Masters of Engineering degrees at the University of Manchester. Afterwards he completed a PhD at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. Professor Richards would have been a champion of Shell’s choices for the earth and in particular for all Caribbean peoples.
In 2006 Professor Hawking posed an open question on the Internet: “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?” later clarifying: “I don’t know the answer. That is why I asked the question, to get people to think about it, and to be aware of the dangers we now face.” Unlike Stephen Hawking we find ourselves imprisoned in a corpus of colonial institutions. We cling to them for life but they are in fact the sepulchres that barricade us from taking the long view.
Cambridge is old but not colonial. If it is anything- it is bold; always taking the long view with economic institutional autonomy guaranteeing its intellectual freedom.