How do we think about large fossil fuel companies donating funds to universities? How might our attitudes change as the climate crisis worsens?
These questions came to mind as I read a new report from Data for Progress. DfP found that the leading carbon energy firms gave nearly $700 million to a small group of American universities from 2010-2020.
Here I’d like to summarize the report, then explore implications.
tl;dr – six energy companies “donated or pledged at least $677,373,368 between 2010 and 2020 to 27 universities.”
In more detail:
The companies in question are “ExxonMobil Corporation, BP America Inc., Chevron Corporation, Shell Oil Company, ConocoPhillips, and Koch Industries.” Their leading recipients “were the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and George Mason University.”
That nearly $700 million is likely an undercount:
Due to a lack of transparency across higher education, including instances where companies rescind or cut portions of university donations, it is unlikely that the funding listed below captures the full extent of fossil fuel industry funding at these universities.
The Berkeley-BP connection is striking:
Why does this matter to higher education and the broader world?
First of all is the question of paying for research results, or corrupting the academic research enterprise. The report cites MIT as one leading example:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) accepted at least $40,475,798 from these companies between 2010 and 2020, including funding for the MIT Energy Initiative. In 2011, the initiative released a report that advocated for natural gas to be the bridge to a “low-carbon future,” dismissing research that found natural gas is, in fact, more harmful due to methane leaks. The following year, President Obama referenced MIT’s Ernest Moniz’s natural gas findings and appointed him secretary of energy, kicking off the fracking boom of the 2010s.
This might become the case at Stanford, where fossil fuel “funding risks corrupting research produced by the Doerr School of Sustainability, as funders will likely want to curtail the release of reputation-harming data, making the new climate research biased at worst and interest–conflicted at best.”
Inside Higher Ed points us to some research on this point:
Concerns about the influence of fossil fuel money on research, and climate research in particular, were reignited a year ago after a study in Nature found evidence suggesting centers and labs funded by those companies produced more favorable research on methane and natural gas as alternatives, rather than renewable energy sources like solar or wind power.
Second, the donations raise the question of climate greenwashing, whereby these companies launder their reputation through academic work. The report hits at Stanford again as an example:
The fossil fuel funders of clean energy and climate research at Stanford have been using these donations to counter claims that they are destroying the planet — a greenwashing tactic that distracts from the fact that their business model is nevertheless entirely dependent on oil, gas, and CO2 production.
Third, these energy companies could use their funded academic partnerships to influence policy decisions, relying on the universities to help make their arguments to the public:
[I]n documents released by the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, one BP executive remarked that the company’s relationships with universities such as Harvard, Tufts, and Columbia “are key parts of [BP’s] long-term relationship-building and outreach to policymakers and influencers in the US and globally.” Fossil fuel companies and their allies deliberately leverage the legitimacy of universities they fund to expand public perception that they are credible actors.
Fourth, such academic donations give rise to changes of institutional hypocrisy as some of the recipient universities have taken public positions against global warming. In the report’s words,
Hundreds of U.S. universities, such as Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, have recognized this and made commitments to support the fight against climate change. However, when these institutions look the other way as climate deniers, fossil fuel interests, and discredited backers of pseudoscience capitalize on their name and credibility, universities undermine these commitments and other positive actions….
When universities allow fossil fuel companies to buy and advertise connections to university research on key climate and energy issues, they provide these companies with much-needed scientific and cultural legitimacy.
Fifth, campuses seeking out such external financial support are good examples of the entrepreneurial university.
University responses to this report, noted in The Guardian, have been interesting. One is to downplay the amount of funding as a proportion of an institution’s budget:
Dan Mogulof, assistant vice-chancellor at Berkeley, sent the Guardian a full accounting of the university’s fossil fuel donations, which he said represent less than 1% of its total research funding.
Another is to cast doubt on the numbers:
Stanford spokesperson Mara Vandlik said: “It’s unclear how these numbers were calculated as we do not share this information publicly,” adding that the university has formed a committee to review the question of fossil fuel funding of research.
Or to flat out deny influence charges:
“Our research reports are the work of MIT faculty, staff and students,” the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) said in a statement. “The funders, whether they are foundations or MITEI members, have no control over the content of the reports – no approval or rejection, no opportunity to accept or reject any findings.”
Or to claim the industry donations are partnerships which help research:
“They provide a lot of guidance and they keep you honest,” George Huber, at the University of Wisconsin, told the Guardian. Huber’s cellulosic biofuels research has received funding from a variety of fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil.
All of this is taking place in the present or recent past. How might our attitudes change over the next few years?
I and others have been forecasting that American (and global) concerns about the climate crisis will grow, an increase driven by a mixture of escalating climate-driven damages and demographic succession (younger people are far more climate-concerned than their elders). Perhaps this new public attitude will not look kindly on leading universities taking oil dollars. This response could play out in many ways: state or federal regulations; private donors withholding support; pressure on state governments to cut back subsidies to public institutions.
The Data for Progress report offers an early sign of this potential opinion shift. They surveyed Americans and asked how their view of these institutions changed after learning about the fossil fuel donations. In many, but not all, cases the results were significant:
When people learn about the oil and gas donations their unfavorable views generally tick upwards, while their favorable views decline a bit.
The picture might already be changing. The report looks at data ending in 2020. Climate activism has built up since then, at least before the Ukraine war, so perhaps universities have reduced their reliance on fossil fuel funding. A quick note in the Guardian’s report suggests as much: “Asked about the new research, several universities described measures they had taken to mitigate concerns, or pointed to more recent reductions in accepting donations.”
Here’s what Data for Progress calls for: “climate activists, allies, academics, and universities should establish funding transparency, institute robust conflict-of-interest and gift acceptance policies, and ban fossil fuel money… [W]e must demand fossil free research now.”
EDITED TO ADD: on Facebook, Pat Parslow asks us to imagine this possibility:
I’d be interested to see whether employers start to ‘boycott’ graduates from institutions which take this sort of funding. I know some younger execs who are likely to give a flat pass.
How likely is this to happen at scale? What would it take to occur?
Or how else might academics respond to this story of universities accepting money from global warming-driving companies – if at all?