Big Oil’s Education Agenda

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Big Oil’s Education Agenda
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There is a long history of corporate funding of universities in the United States, with Big Oil having contributed a significant chunk of this money. But now,  the U.S. is heading towards a green transition, supported but new climate policies and public funding. Thus, the transfer of money from major fossil fuel firms to educational institutions is becoming more of a concern. At a time when the U.S. government, and many other political powers worldwide, are aiming to move away from fossil fuels to greener alternatives, Big Oil could continue to shape several American schools’ research agendas. This is Big Oil’s education agenda.

How Much Does Big Oil Contribute to American Universities?

According to a new study, six fossil fuel firms gave over $700 million in research funding to 27 U.S. universities between 2010 and 2020. The study’s authors suggest that funding from oil and gas companies could shift research agendas in favor of fossil fuels. This could be particularly concerning in the field of climate research. This research goes on to shape political policy and U.S. climate solutions. In addition to giving money to universities, the study found that oil and gas companies are continuing to provide funding for think tanks and non-profits to conduct research. 

Some of the biggest recipients of funding included the University of California at Berkeley ($154m), Stanford University ($56.6m), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT – $40.5m) and George Mason University ($64m). In 2020, Harvard University gave a surprise announcement that it had plans for a new, climate-informed investment policy, aiming to achieve a “greenhouse-gas neutral” endowment by 2050. 

One of the major issues with the funding is the lack of transparency. Experts believe the quantity could be far higher than $700 million due to the anonymity of many of the donations. Students and politicians are calling for full disclosure of where funders’ interests lie. Others are calling for universities that already receive enough funding from other sources to reject financing from oil and gas firms.

How Do the Students and Professors Feel?

Students across the country have long campaigned against donations from fossil fuel companies, which has encouraged some universities to divest, such as Berkeley in 2020. Students at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and MIT even launched a student-led lawsuit in 2022 because universities must invest in a manner consistent with their “charitable purposes”. The legal strategy was established around the idea that the law imposes a legal duty to put the public interest first, and that investing in fossil fuel companies could cause damage to the environment and health.

In the report, a poll is provided based on the statement “Colleges and universities studying the impacts of climate change and sustainability should refuse donations from fossil fuel companies so they can remain unbiased in their research.” Of the voters interviewed, 67% agreed. 

Refusing this funding to expand research capabilities may seem counterintuitive when coming from educational institutions. However, many universities have set ambitious climate targets in recent years. While many schools are bringing green energy technology to campuses across the country, several continue to accept donations from oil and gas majors, often in direct contradiction to their climate aims. To date, 337 U.S. universities and colleges, covering almost 3.7 million students, have signed up for the international “race to zero” pledge

However, many universities and academics argue that insight from energy firms is vital to forming comprehensive research.  Many professors rely on experts in the field to provide accurate information and verify the technical applications of theories and technologies. George Huber, at the University of Wisconsin, said that energy firms “provide a lot of guidance and they keep you honest”. Huber explained “Oftentimes you’ll see professors make statements about energy that are not technically correct and work on technology that can’t be implemented. And people from the industry, they understand what the technology needs to have to be implemented at an industrial scale.”

Should This Funding End?

Gaining insight from energy firms can also help researchers understand what’s relevant. While academics may want to study one area of fossil fuels or green energy, energy experts can help them understand whether the research is applicable in a real-world situation and whether it will be useful for policy. Some critics of climate funding do believe that investment could continue and firms could help to inform research so long as there are no strings attached to the funding, to keep the research impartial. Researchers should be seeking insight from both energy firms and climate-focused organizations to understand the whole picture and draw conclusions from thorough industry assessments. 

Recent studies have shown the huge amount of funding U.S. universities are receiving from oil and gas companies. This may be just the tip of the iceberg, due to transparency issues. While some academics believe that support from fossil fuel firms helps to provide key insights for research, other stakeholders and students are concerned about the funding creating a bias in studies, which could go on to inform climate policy. What seems clear is that funding for studies and research institutions should be more transparent and, ultimately, should help increase the amount of climate research without shaping the studies in favor of the fossil fuel industry.  

Author Felicity Bradstock
Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specializing in Energy and Industry. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK, and is now based in Mexico City.

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