EUCAM,12 September 2023; Sandra van Ginneken & Wim van Dalen

The Heineken Prizes for Arts and Sciences have been awarded biennially since 1964. Two foundations linked to, but legally separate from the famous Dutch beer brewing company – the Alfred Heineken Fondsen Foundation and the Dr A.H. Heineken Foundation for the Arts (hereinafter: the foundations) – are financing the prizes. The KNAW took care of the nomination process and selected the laureates. Both parties saw this cooperation as beneficial.

However, with the 60th anniversary of the Heineken Prizes approaching, the continued existence of the partnership has recently come into question. The KNAW website states that ‘The Foundations and the Academy have jointly decided that the nomination and selection process of the Heineken Prizes 2024 will not be supervised by the Academy. The Foundations are keen to continue honouring science and art within the current form’ (July 24th).

An equally brief internal communication from the KNAW (July 14th), brought out by KNAW-member Professor Martijn Katan, motivates this remarkable and ‘painfully’ taken decision with a reference to Heineken’s ongoing business operations in the Russian Federation. Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine (2022) Heineken announced to cease its operations in Russia. Earlier this year, investigative journalist Olivier van Beemen revealed that Heineken had launched as many as 61 new brands on the Russian market (instead of pulling out of Russia). This put the company in a bad light. In August, Heineken released the news that it had sold its assets in Russia at a loss to a Russian company.

Now the question arises, what Heineken’s departure from Russia means for the partnership between Heineken and the KNAW: continue on the old footing, or not? The question is especially sensitive and relevant for the KNAW, as there is resistance within its own ranks to the collaboration with Heineken. In September 2022, Klaas Landsman, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Radboud University (Nijmegen), called on the Academy to end its collaboration with Heineken in an opinion article in the Dutch newspaper NRC.

In his opinion article Professor Landsman stresses that the KNAW should not allow itself to be used as an advertising pillar for Heineken. He dismisses the KNAW’s point of view that the Academy does not cooperate with the Heineken company but with two foundations separate from it. Landsman takes the view that the vast majority of people will not make this distinction. Marketing experts will support Landsman’s view that the KNAW is offering the (brand)name Heineken a positive association.

Klaas Landsman also points out the harmful health effects of alcohol, and rightly so. However, there are further arguments against continuing the cooperation:

  • Both the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages have a negative impact on most UN Sustainable Development Goals.
  • With the Heineken Prizes, Heineken can present itself as a warm advocate and friend of the arts and sciences. But there is no such is love, when the results of independent scientific research (potentially) harm commercial corporate interests. The KNAW presents itself as ‘the forum, the voice and the conscience of science in the Netherlands’. This mission should exclude a partnership with a party that, for commercial interests, has no qualms about undermining independent science.
  • Heineken’s unethical business practices, as for instance revealed by Olivier van Beemen in his book Heineken in Africa. A Multinational Unleashed (2019). Apparently, these shocking revelations were no reason for the KNAW to reconsider its partnership with Heineken.

The KNAW should now show its colours and be more consistent. In response to Landsman’s opinion article the Academy emphasized that it cooperated with the foundations, not with the brewing company, but the decision not to contribute to the Heineken Prizes 2024 was motivated by a reference to company’s ongoing operations in Russia. Doesn’t this lack of consistency show that the distinction between the foundations and the company is illusory?

As explained above, there are compelling arguments, beyond the case of Russia (that seems now closed anyway), that should bring the KNAW to the conclusion that it should terminate its partnership with Heineken for good. Heineken is the party that actually benefits from this collaboration, as the name Heineken is linked to the positive image and the stature of the KNAW. It is not possible to maintain that the reverse is also true.

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