Accepting industry money risks distorting research and allowing polluting firms to greenwash their reputations, says Zak Coleman. However before A fossil fuel divestment ‘how-to’, it is advisable not to overlook or ignore what has been said before now.
Fossil fuel research ties undermine universities’ climate change response
I became the University of Cambridge’s students’ union undergraduate president in the wake of the university’s historic decision to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. I felt hopeful. The university was waking up to the urgent need to combat the climate crisis. It finally understood the damaging consequences of lending its reputational legitimacy to the industry driving this emergency.
Or so I thought.
Working at the students’ union, I became increasingly aware that the university’s involvement with fossil fuel companies extended far beyond its investments. The BP Institute and the professorship of complex physical systems sponsored by offshore drilling company Schlumberger are just two of the countless industry links that Cambridge retains. Everywhere I looked, I saw the university inviting the very same companies it had just condemned as unconscionable investments to be senior partners in its core research activities.
This felt like an enormous betrayal. Universities are supposed to be committed to supporting young people and our futures. But here was my university collaborating extensively with the companies destroying that future.
But it’s not just the hypocrisy that concerns me. Universities’ research partnerships with the fossil fuel industry also undermine their ability to effectively address the climate emergency.
Let’s be clear. Industry executives have known about the devastating climate impacts of their business for more than 50 years. Instead of acting on the science, however, they spent millions of pounds spreading climate disinformation and expanded their fossil fuel operations. They continue to engage in extensive anti-climate political lobbying and resolutely focus the overwhelming majority of their business on fossil fuels, including building new infrastructure and exploring for new reserves. Meanwhile, the world’s top scientists and energy experts are clear that no new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and avoid runaway climate breakdown.
In contrast, universities like Cambridge are respected globally for upholding the highest standards of scientific integrity and intellectual rigour. Like it or not, partnerships between such higher education institutions and companies that have spent decades ignoring, silencing and discrediting these universities’ very own scientists are a PR gift for the fossil fuel industry. They allow these firms to misrepresent themselves as reformed leaders of the green transition. They send a clear message to governments, policymakers and wider civil society: if universities like Cambridge deem these companies serious on climate-related issues, why shouldn’t we? Ultimately, they help to stall desperately overdue political action to address the climate emergency.
Accepting funding from the fossil fuel industry also raises serious questions about researchers’ ability to conduct truly independent climate-related research. Academics must be free to determine their own research agendas, speak their minds and publish their findings without fear of censorship, reprisal or the denial of funding for future projects. Yet numerous studies demonstrate that industry funding skews research agendas and outcomes in directions favourable to industry interests, and that common safeguarding measures are often inadequate mitigation. This is why, for decades, research institutions have rejected tobacco industry funding for public health research. The same principle must be extended to fossil fuel funding of climate-related research. Independent climate research is just too important to tolerate such risks.
Governments and universities now have a profound responsibility to provide alternatives to industry funding. This is especially true for our wealthiest universities, which frequently accept the most fossil fuel research funding. Indeed, despite being Europe’s wealthiest university, Cambridge accepted more from oil companies between 2017 and 2021than all other UK universities bar one – Imperial College London.
Such universities have large, well-established fundraising departments capable of raising phenomenal sums. Philanthropic giving to US universities rose by 6.9 per cent in 2021 alone, topping $52 billion (£40 billion). The notion that there are no alternatives to fossil fuel industry funding is dangerously false.
Last month, more than 500 leading academics signed an open letter calling for universities to cut research ties with the fossil fuel industry. Among those supporting the letter, which is still open for signatures, are Nobel Prize winners; the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson; and numerous scientists on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
We know the fossil fuel industry will continue to ignore the calls of these distinguished climate experts. But we expect better from our universities. Our planet is in ecological cardiac arrest, yet it is the fossil fuel industry that our universities are helping keep on life support. It is long past time for this to end.
Zak Coleman is undergraduate president of the Cambridge Students’ Union. Twitter: @SU_PresidentUG
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