In June, Harvard University announced a $200 million gift to launch the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, an academic center dedicated to the study of one of humanity’s most pressing threats. In May, Stanford University announced a $1.1 billion gift to fund the Doerr School of Sustainability, its first new school in 70 years. That same month, Columbia University celebrated its Climate School’s first-ever graduating class. Around the nation, universities are writing their next chapters—and betting that a focus on climate is their future.
But if top universities genuinely want to lead, a key roadblock remains: around the nation and the world, leading institutions are structurally unprepared for the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the interests and values of academia.
The fossil fuel industry’s troubled relationship with fact is by this point well established. Years before the general public, fossil fuel companies’ own internal scientists knew of the harms caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Yet rather than work with academia and civil society to change course, they instead spent years spreading misinformation and undermining scientific consensus regarding our climate reality.
An often-underappreciated component of this strategy has been the industry’s rise as a key funder of climate-related research and scholarship worldwide. It’s easy to see why they find it a good investment: by touting academic associations, fossil fuel companies can draw on universities’ hard-earned reputations to depict themselves as good-faith partners in the energy transition, all while distracting from the fact that no major oil company is even close to alignment with science-based emission-reduction standards. That is to say, the industry has mastered the art of exploiting universities’ credibility to serve its own interests.
But it’s more than just optics: when big oil enters the academic arena, it often does so with the intent of explicitly shaping the direction of academic research. At leading institutions around the nation, fossil fuel companies have plowed millions of dollars into climate research, bankrolling efforts pledged to addressing the very problems its own business model creates. And evidence is emerging that this funding has come at a cost — that of academic freedom and intellectual autonomy itself.
Sometimes, fossil fuel companies’ routes of influence on scholarship can be very direct. Industry donors might be granted representation on boards or formal voices in governance (oil company representatives, for example, have sat on climate-focused institutes’ boards at Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the lead attorney for ExxonMobil in a 2019 climate change case brought by New York’s attorney general is one of 13 members of the Harvard Corporation). Contracts might grant donors rights to review, edit or censor research before it is publicized (as in the case of a former Environmental Protection Agency science adviser—one with connections to George Washington University’s controversial Regulatory Studies Center—who reportedly allowed the American Petroleum Institute to copyedit and proofread his research prior to publication). And industry voices can mobilize to attack and discredit scholars with whom they disagree (as was recently the case against Harvard researchers).
Far more common, however, is influence by more subtle routes. Peer-reviewed scholarship has found that even in absence of specific quid pro quos, corporate funding can skew research in the aggregate. Before even a single data point is collected, the power to direct funding means a power to shape which questions are asked and which are not. And once a question is funded, it is hard to bite the hand that feeds you: a dependence on a specific funding source can incentivize researchers to avoid conclusions that might threaten access to data or availability of future grants. It’s these subtle incentives that can most effectively hinder academics’ ability to pursue unrestricted and free inquiry, thereby putting the academic mission at risk.
This is exactly what’s at risk of happening at places like Stanford, where faculty have explicitly invoked fear of retaliation (such as loss of future funding) from fossil fuel companies in their deliberations regarding the university’s path forward on climate action. Or at Harvard, where programs in climate policy have taken funding from the likes of Shell (and subsequently produced programming highly favorable to fossil fuel interests). Or at George Washington, where ExxonMobil and Charles Koch Foundation money has funded the university’s aforementioned Regulatory Studies Center—the true purpose of which “is to provide scholarly rationales against government regulation, focusing on measures that would affect the fossil fuel industry, such as those to reduce pollution or combat climate change,” according to a 2019 report by the nonprofit Public Citizen.
So how can universities avoid the perils of fossil-funded corrosion of intellectual autonomy? Real disclosure is a start. Policy makers, journalists and the public deserve to understand the full context in which academic work is produced. But while necessary, disclosure of fossil fuel ties is hardly in and of itself sufficient. Questions of how to avoid undue influence from external funding are nothing new for universities (that’s why academia has developed extensive norms for preventing conflicts of interest). What makes oil money unique is the degree to which these conflicts of interest cannot be mitigated: there’s no getting around the fact that these companies’ prospects rely on burning more carbon, while the planet’s prospects rely on burning less. Academia is founded on the premise of truth seeking. A business model reliant on sustained fossil fuel extraction long into the future is fundamentally predicated on the rejection of truth. From the moment that scholarly research comes to rely on such a business model, academic freedom cannot exist.
This isn’t the first time academia has confronted the question of unacceptable funding. As evidence of tobacco’s harmful effects on society piled up, universities across the country realized that medical and public health research was dangerously reliant on cigarette company funding. Some at the time tried to defend the status quo (claiming, for example, that funding never shapes the research process). But as tobacco companies used their academic affiliations to falsely portray themselves as part of the solution, and used their perch in the funding process to undermine certainty and scientific consensus, leading universities soon realized the danger this money posed. In response, dozens of universities, public health schools and medical schools around the world decided to refuse tobacco money of any kind.
As the world grows ever warmer, it is evident that the same issues are at play today. That was the recent conclusion of more than 750 leading academics and experts, including numerous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change authors and Nobel laureates, who wrote in a recent open letter that fossil fuel funding in academia “represents an inherent conflict of interest, is antithetical to universities’ core academic and social values, and supports industry greenwashing.” The answer, they wrote, is clear: ban oil, gas and coal funding of climate science, environmental and energy policy research before it proves too corrosive.
The tides are already turning. After years of close collaboration with fossil fuel companies, Princeton announced last month that it would reject many types of fossil fuel funding moving forward.
For young people, universities are an investment in the future—the same future the climate crisis threatens to upend. As a green future is incubated in the labs and classrooms of the world, universities should be proud of their immense ability to make a difference where it matters. But so long as the fossil fuel industry is able to exploit academia, institutions’ own ability to engage with the future stands at risk. If universities truly want to unleash their full potential on climate, unimpeded free inquiry is nothing short of essential. And that means fossil-free research today.