Bella Kumar arrived at George Washington University excited by the school’s reputation as a prestigious research institution. But after seeing a presentation on the university’s Regulatory Studies Center and its deep ties to fossil fuel interests, Kumar was shocked.
Now, as hub coordinator of Sunrise GW, Kumar is among dozens of student activists sparking a burgeoning movement spanning higher education and research institutions from Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Mass., to Cambridge, England, and Sydney, Australia.
Known as Fossil Free Research, the movement capitalizes on the historic success of fossil fuel divestment, which last fall pressured longtime holdout Harvard University to pledge to divest its $53 billion endowment. Like divestment, Fossil Free Research emerges in response to enduring attempts by Big Oil to spread misinformation about the climate crisis and weaken climate policy, including by seeking to enlist support from the scientific community.
“The effort to shape mainstream academia and mainstream scientific thinking is something that the industry articulated as part of a campaign to delay action on climate change, and so it’s important to address it,” said Ben Franta, a graduate fellow and climate disinformation researcher at Stanford University.
While industry funding usually receives limited acknowledgment from universities, oil and gas giants frequently publicize their relationships, as these partnerships help lend credibility to the claims that the fossil fuel companies support a green energy transition. In reality, as The Guardian recently revealed, these companies “are on track to spend $103m a day for the rest of the decade exploiting new fields of oil and gas.”
By funding university research, Big Oil helps shape the understanding of the solutions available for addressing the climate crisis to policy-makers, the media, and the world. Campaigners with Fossil Free Research are calling for a societal reckoning. The question now is whether the movement can push major research institutions like Harvard and Stanford—universities with prominent industry ties—to take action.
Big Oil’s record as a bad-faith climate actor is well-documented. Last summer, the Greenpeace investigative news outlet Unearthed published undercover footage of an ExxonMobil senior lobbyist detailing the company’s nefarious playbook for heading off climate action under the Biden administration. Those revelations followed reports of top oil and gas giants spending approximately $200 million annually to block and weaken climate policy, and having a delegation larger than that of any country at the latest international climate conference, COP26.
Meanwhile, mounting work from leading researchers including Robert Brulle of Drexel University, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran of Harvard, and Ben Franta of Stanford, as well as investigative reporting by outlets such as Inside Climate News, exposed the various means by which oil and gas giants have sought to sow doubt about climate science and distort the public and policy-makers’ perceptions of climate change risks for decades.
Last fall, Franta copublished a paper that revealed that trade association group IPIECA and petroleum companies “used scientific research as a tool to delay action, funding research that might make climate change appear less alarming and placing company scientists at institutions in order to gain access and monitor activity,” as well as sought to identify scientists “who could help the industry promote uncertainty.”
Today, fossil fuel companies, right-wing organizations like the Koch family foundations, and trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute continue to fund scientific endeavors. The case of Willie Soon, a Harvard-affiliated aerospace engineer who received substantial industry funding for his research and has been a vocal denier of climate science, is one of the most infamous examples.
More recently, Cornell professor Robert Howarth and Stanford professor Mark Jacobson released a groundbreaking peer-reviewed study about the emissions intensity of blue hydrogen. As Howarth pointed out on Twitter, a very critical response to the paper initially omitted the critics’ fossil fuel ties, enabling it to cloud public perspective around what qualifies as a real climate solution.
The issue of influence remains even where industry funding is apparent. As an open letter from academics and climate experts endorsing the call for Fossil Free Research argues, “common safeguards like public disclosure of funding sources are often inadequate to mitigate [the] skew” that numerous studies show can result when funding stems from companies with a business model or agenda antithetical to research aims. First published in March, the letter features IPCC authors and Nobel Prize recipients and includes more than 750 signatures.
Research partnerships can also have a chilling effect on researchers’ freedom to speak out against industry malfeasance. Franta recalled being instructed in a staff meeting by a senior director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs not to talk to journalists about the center’s oil industry funding, while his Harvard colleagues Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran have come under fierce attack from the industry for their outspokenness about its troubled history. In Norway, the fossil fuel major Equinor has stipulated in contracts with universities that the institutions “work actively to give positive publicity” to these partnerships.
Not all academics see fossil fuel industry funding as problematic, however. For instance, director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative Adam Brandt said he thought working with the industry brings benefits beyond the financial, providing unique opportunities for training students, as well as the potential to help oil and gas companies pivot their business models. “The idea that there are strings being pulled behind the scenes to direct research findings is really not the case, in my experience,” Brandt said. NGI lists ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell as sustaining members, and the American Petroleum Institute, Aramco Services, and oilfield services giant Schlumberger as corporate members. Brandt also said that he was not convinced by arguments that these partnerships help greenwash Big Oil’s reputation. “Given the state of discourse on the issue…I don’t think anyone at Exxon thinks that giving Stanford some money to do science…is going to change anyone’s mind.”
Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, also said that donors were not involved in determining ENRP research priorities and had no role in the editorial process for any publications it produced. Lee has personally received industry funding for his work.
In Franta’s view, simply knowing that their research and, perhaps, their livelihoods, depend on industry funding presents an intractable problem even for the most well-intentioned academics. As a result, he said, researchers affiliated with the industry “might be some of the worst to ask” about the potential for industry influence and what the solution is.
“When academics and scientists take fossil fuel money, they are selling their integrity,” said Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, author of The New Climate War, and prominent Fossil Free Research letter signatory. “The fossil fuel industry is more than happy to purchase the moral license that is gained by them when academics and scientists take their money.”
Within the broad base of academic support for addressing Big Oil’s influence on the research and policy processes remain substantive questions about how to formulate and enforce a Fossil Free Research policy. While many academics, including Mann and Franta, have supported the call for a blanket ban on industry money for climate change-related research, some academics support a narrower approach.
David Keith, a public policy and applied physics professor at Harvard University, considers a blanket ban unenforceable. Previously, Keith criticized his former employer the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy for failing to maintain independence from fossil fuel industry interests. While he has accepted industry funding for his work in the past, he says he has not done so at Harvard.
“If it has a policy part or Exxon uses it as a claim that they are some climate leader, yes, I have a problem,” Keith said. He mentioned Stanford and MIT as places where he had concerns about research funding from oil and gas giants for certain programming, including the MIT Energy Initiative, along with premier climate and energy programming at HKS. The school’s flagship Environment and Natural Resources Program’s past and present include BP and Shell.
But, as Franta highlighted, even seemingly technical or purely scientific research can have serious policy implications. “To artificially separate the technical research from policy research per se is just a misunderstanding of what the purpose of climate research is—to solve climate change,” said Franta.
In response to a request for comment on HKS’s acceptance of fossil fuel industry funding, spokesperson James Francis Smith said, “The School receives funding from many entities to sustain its work, and none of the funders control the approach or conclusions of that work. Our policies for transparent engagement and funding are described on our website.”
“Many of our industrial collaborators have extensive research and development groups, and we believe bringing this talent to the table alongside our researchers at MITEI is a crucial component of our efforts to move as quickly as possible to address climate change,” said Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative—whose sponsors include Shell, Eni, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips.
Keith also believes that drawing a red line at oil and gas companies is insufficient. Researchers must also consider the consequences of accepting funding from individuals who derive a majority of their wealth from the fossil fuel industry, as is reflected in the funding policy that Keith helped craft for Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program.
In an expression of support for the open letter, climate scientist and the University of Hawaiʻi at Māno oceanography professor David Ho suggested climate research should be government funded. Even without further public funding, it appears that at least in some cases, university fundraising campaigns and private donors could supplement industry funds. The $1.1 billion and $200 million gifts to endow Stanford’s new Doerr School of Sustainability and Harvard’s Salata Institute for for Climate and Sustainability respectively make this potential clear, as do a rise in philanthropic giving at and record fundraising campaigns by higher education institutions in recent years.
Amid growing debates over funding at top energy and climate research initiatives, student and academic campaigners are making clear that they won’t wait for administrators or supervisors to take action. Instead, they’re challenging authority figures to take a stand against Big Oil, with a call to cut all research partnerships with oil and gas giants and prevent further industry conflicts of interest that could arise during the research process.
This past May, more than 50 students, and academics occupied the BP Institute at the University of Cambridge, and staged creative protests at Oxford and The George Washington University, in the first-ever cross-campus, cross-border direct action for Fossil Free Research. In late July, it was revealed that Cambridge is renaming its BP Institute. The Fossil Free Research campaign called the move a major win, while also demanding further action from Cambridge and its peer institutions to actually disentangle their research funding from Big Oil.
Public opinion, too, seems increasingly aligned with activists’ sentiments. Last month, polling from Data for Progress showed that a majority of voters agree that universities should refuse donations from fossil fuel companies to maintain unbiased research programs.
Mann urged more academics to sign the open letter calling for Fossil Free Research, saying “it’s not too late” to help drive change. Franta suggested change would most likely come through a broad-based social movement of the kind now emerging, while resistance would most likely come from those within the scientific community compromised by industry funding.
“The fossil fuel industry is able to exist because they pay for the research that excuses their behavior,” said Kumar. “For our futures, for everyone we love, I strongly believe that campus organizing and Fossil Free Research is the next step in bringing down the fossil fuel industry.”