Fossil Fuel Companies Are Donating Millions to Skew University Research

Fossil Fuel Companies Are Donating Millions to Skew University Research

Fossil Fuel Companies Are Donating Millions to Skew University Research

A new report from Data for Progress and Fossil Free Research examines the influence Big Oil and other polluters have in higher education.

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In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth assessment report, summarizing the current knowledge of the impacts and risks of climate change. “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all,” reads the 2023 report. “The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”

We are once again reminded that catastrophic, irreversible damage to Earth’s climate can only be prevented by immediate and robust climate efforts—including a complete halt on existing and currently planned fossil fuel projects. Despite knowing of the threats posed by climate change since the 1970s, Big Oil has sought to maintain the status quo and impede climate action, buying off policy-makers and waging disinformation wars in the media.

But colleges and universities have begun waking up to the industry’s toxic influence. In 2021, Harvard University announced that it would divest its endowment from fossil fuels, triggering a wave at other colleges, from Boston University to the University of Minnesota. Despite this progress, many of these schools continue to allow oil and gas giants to sponsor research and educational programs tied to climate science and energy policy.

A report released this month by Data for Progress and Fossil Free Research showed the extent of this influence, tracking donations at over two dozen schools. Between 2003 and 2022, top fossil fuel companies donated at least $20 million to Harvard University alone. “Many of the nation’s most prominent universities, including Harvard, MIT, and George Washington, are awash with fossil fuel funding, and scientists are ringing the alarm about the effects this money has on climate research.” Research from Columbia University has found that when research centers take money from fossil fuel companies, they produce results that are disproportionately favorable toward the industry. Chevron, BP, and Shell sponsor the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. Shell also sponsors discussions and programming regarding natural gas at Harvard and Exxon and Chevron sponsor the school’s Corporate Responsibility Initiative.

Just as campaign donations have turned elected officials against environmental initiatives, fossil fuel funders are making a strong attempt to skew the results, timing, and presentation of scientific research. Duke University, a school supposedly dedicated to “creating sustainable and equitable solutions” with its 2022 Climate Commitment, received at least $5 million from fossil fuel companies during that same period. In recent years, Duke’s Energy Week has been sponsored by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Duke Energy, and their lab focused on algae biofuel research receives funding from Shell. The latter is a common greenwashing tactic, in which fossil fuel companies invest a small percentage (up to 9 percent) of annual capital expenditures into alternatives, while continuing to explore new oil and gas reserves.

Most Americans see the problem here, but will universities listen? If there is one thing that major institutions care about, it is their reputation. According to polling by Data For Progress, Harvard’s favorability dropped a whopping 14 points when respondents learned that the school accepts fossil fuel money for climate research. Similarly, the majority of voters believe that “universities studying the impacts of climate change and sustainability should refuse donations from fossil fuel companies.”

Some schools have already taken positive steps. Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment currently rejects fossil-fuel research funding as inconsistent with its sustainability commitments. Princeton, meanwhile, voted last year to dissociate completely—including research funding—from 90 companies especially complicit in the climate crisis.

By the time the IPCC releases its next report with equal depth and expertise as this year’s synthesis report, the window of opportunity to prevent irreversible climate change will have passed. Refusing fossil fuel funding is a responsible practice to ensure unbiased academic work as well as a powerful statement against a destructive industry. Society must relinquish the control that fossil fuel money has over it; removing its influence from higher education and scientific progress brings us one step closer.

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