More than two dozen universities in the United States received almost $700 million in research funding from fossil fuel companies between 2010 and 2020, according to a new study. This represents a huge conflict of interest, the researchers said, with the universities producing papers in line with the interests of the oil and gas companies.
The think tank Data for Progress and the nonprofit group Fossil-Free Research went through publicly available data, annual reports from universities and oil companies and media coverage on donations. The $700 million figure is probably just scratching the surface, they told the Guardian, as there’s a lack of transparency around these donations.
The top three recipients of fossil fuel funding were the University of California, Berkeley ($154 million); the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ($108 million); and George Mason University ($63 million). The first two received most of the funding from British Petroleum and the third one got it from Koch Industries, the study found.
The list includes many other big universities across the US, such as Stanford University ($56 million), University of Texas at Austin ($45 million) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($40.5 million). The researchers included several examples of universities where the funds are used to carry out climate research, which turned out to be biased.
For example, MIT used the funds for its MIT Energy Initiative, a program that has advocated for natural gas to be the bridge to a “low-carbon future,” dismissing research that has found natural gas can bring many climate risks. Columbia has also produced eight reports that were written by authors working for a gas company.
Close links with fossil fuels
Donating money to universities goes a long way for fossil fuel companies, gaining a direct influence on day-to-day activities. Companies’ officials have sat on climate-focused institutes’ boards at MIT and Princeton University, for example. Contracts can give donors rights to review, edit or censor research before it goes out, the researchers said.
However, this has a cost. The researchers also polled 1,230 both college-educated and non-college-educated voters and found the universities’ decision to accept fossil fuel funding impacts their public image. Over 65% agreed universities studying climate change should refuse donations from fossil fuel companies so as to remain unbiased.
In response to the report, Berkeley University told The Guardian that fossil fuel donations currently represent less than 1% of their total research funding and Stanford questioned how the numbers were calculated. Meanwhile, the MIT Energy Initiative said none of their funders have control over the content of their research, dismissing the findings.
The researchers listed a set of recommendations for the universities for their way forward. First, they should establish funding transparency, disclosing all externally sponsored research and donations in a publicly accessible database. Second, banning fossil fuel money for climate research. And finally reviewing current policies on conflicts of interest.
“Universities and the research they produce are critical to a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels. Such efforts are fundamentally undermined by fossil fuel industry funding. Academics should not be forced to choose between researching climate solutions and aiding corporate greenwashing,” the researchers wrote.
The full report can be accessed here.