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Report: Big Oil Has Given Nearly $700M to Fund Research at Top Universities

This funding can be used to push industry-favored products and “solutions,” a new report says.

In their quest to buy credibility and influence the academic sphere, fossil fuel companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on funding research at top universities in the U.S. over the past decade, a new report finds.

Between 2010 and 2020, six top fossil fuel corporations funneled at least $677 million to 27 universities for research — funding that could have impacted the research direction of climate, energy and related departments at the schools, a new report by Data for Progress and Fossil-Free Research finds.

These funds could have been used to fund research pushing industry-favored “solutions” to climate and energy conundrums, similar to the way that corporate interests lobby lawmakers and create ad campaigns to influence elections, the report says; the funding was likely given in part to advance Big Oil’s agenda of denying climate change and delaying action to mitigate the crisis.

Because funding information in higher education is often private, the roughly $677 million in donations and pledges that Data for Progress tracked from public records likely only reflects a small portion of fossil fuel research funding, even just within the roughly two dozen universities scrutinized in the report.

The estimated funding “so far uncovered by this report is just a fraction of the true total,” said Geoffrey Supran, climate researcher at the University of Miami and Fossil-Free Research board member, in a statement. “Estimating this massive lower bound figure is a crucial first step towards compelling university officials to reckon with the conflicts of interest inherent in accepting fossil fuel money, especially to fund climate-related research.”

The recipients of the donations included top research universities. Top recipients included University of California, Berkeley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and George Mason University. Several institutions, like Berkeley and Harvard University, appear to have accepted these funds even as they have publicly acknowledged the climate crisis, made pledges to cut their carbon impacts or supposedly divested from fossil fuels.

This sort of funding is especially dangerous because it can fly under the radar, wielding influence in a way that’s often invisible to the public as research is done and presented by researchers at universities whose credibility is established. In this way, fossil fuel companies can launder their talking points through universities by presenting them as unbiased, pushing things like hydrogen, biofuels and carbon capture, which are designed to allow fossil fuel companies to continue extracting and burning fossil fuels for decades into the future and to slow the transition to clean energy.

At the same time, research projects are often approved based on the funding they are able to bring in, meaning that corporations can use their funding to bias research and determine which projects receive a green light. For instance, a recent study found that reports from universities receiving funding from the natural gas industry are more likely to be favorable toward natural gas, while universities less dependent on fossil fuel funding were more favorable toward renewable energies.

“Universities occupy a unique role in the global economy as owners of massive amounts of intellectual and physical capital: the financialization of education has reduced the university to a place of business and the student to a worker. Their ability to direct labor toward a particular cause and redefine issues is unmatched by any other group,” the report says.

Allowing fossil fuel corporations to control part of research narratives at universities can compromise critical players in the fight against the climate crisis, the report continues. “University research partnerships with fossil fuel companies play a key role in bolstering these companies’ reputations,” it says. “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.”

Climate advocates say it is time for universities to stop accepting fossil fuel funding for research that is related to their products and the climate.

In a letter led by Fossil-Free Research and signed by over 800 academics and climate experts, including Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) authors, the signatories say that there is an “inherent conflict of interest” in this practice and that it “compromises” the integrity of research and academic freedom.

“We know that many of our colleagues who choose to accept fossil fuel funding strive to produce honest and independent research, often faced with few alternative funding pathways. However, the risk of skewed outcomes is endemic when research funding is dominated by companies with agendas that are in conflict with the goals of the funded research,” the letter says. “Given the immense stakes of the climate crisis and the power of university research to shape public knowledge and policy around a rapid renewable energy transition, this is a risk we simply cannot take.”

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