Fossil Free Research

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Who we are

Fossil Free Research is a new campaign to end the toxic influence of fossil fuel money on climate change-related research in universities. It is coordinated by international student divestment and climate justice activists with the support of a wide range of academics, climate experts, and university members, as reflected by the letter below.

Our letter

Dear University Presidents and Vice-Chancellors,

We are writing as academics and experts who are deeply concerned by universities’ collaboration with the fossil fuel industry. Universities across the United Kingdom and the United States currently accept substantial funding from fossil fuel companies for research aimed at solving the very problems this industry causes and continues to exacerbate. We believe this funding represents an inherent conflict of interest, is antithetical to universities’ core academic and social values, and supports industry greenwashing. Thus, it compromises universities’ basic institutional integrity, academic freedom, and their ability to address the climate emergency.

For these reasons, we are calling on U.K. and U.S. universities to institute a ban on accepting fossil fuel industry funding for climate change, environmental, and energy policy research.

Accepting fossil fuel industry funding for research meant to address the climate crisis undermines the academic integrity of climate-related research. To be clear, our concern is not with the integrity of individual academics. Rather, it is with the systemic issue posed by the context in which academics must work, one where fossil fuel industry funding can taint critical climate-related research. There is a clear parallel between accepting fossil fuel industry funding for climate change research and accepting tobacco industry funding for public health research. Already, numerous public health and research institutions reject tobacco money due to the industry’s extensive record of spreading disinformation around the public health consequences of its products. Today, the fossil fuel industry has employed disinformation tactics from the same playbook, working to sow doubt about climate science, silence industry critics, and stall climate action. How, then, can universities consider these companies appropriate partners for climate-related research?

Fossil fuel funding for climate-related research creates a conflict of interest that compromises researchers’ academic freedom. Academics must be free to determine their own research agendas, speak their minds, and declare their findings without fear of censorship, reprisal, or the withdrawal of funding for future projects. That freedom is compromised by reliance on funding from an industry whose core business model is diametrically opposed to science-led climate action. Numerous studies also demonstrate that industry-funded research can yield results that are favorable to industry interests, and that common safeguards like public disclosure of funding sources are often inadequate to mitigate this skew. 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. 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.

Furthermore, accepting fossil fuel research funding contravenes universities’ stated commitments to tackling the climate crisis. Fossil fuel companies have concealed, trivialized, and neglected the science of climate change for decades. Today, despite warnings from the world’s top energy organization that “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects” can be made if the world is to limit global heating to 1.5°C, major fossil fuel companies continue to plan new extraction projects decades into the future and fail to align with the goals of the international Paris Agreement. Though they present themselves as leaders in sustainability, fossil fuel companies’ investments in oil and gas continue to dwarf their renewable energy investments, which represent just a few percent of their total capital expenditure. Even the investments that they present as directed toward climate solutions contribute to projects that are often far from sustainable. In short, fossil fuel companies’ claims to be leaders in a green transition should not be taken seriously. It is clear, therefore, that these companies cannot make for effective or good faith partners with universities seeking to pave the way for a sustainable future. Collaborating with these companies is inimical to academic institutions’ pledges for climate action.

University research partnerships with fossil fuel companies play a key role in greenwashing these companies’ reputations. When universities allow fossil fuel companies to buy and advertise connections to university research on key climate and energy issues, they inadvertently provide these companies with much-needed scientific and cultural legitimacy. This is incredibly valuable to fossil fuel companies, as it allows them to report to policymakers, shareholders, and the media that they are working with globally respected institutions on transition solutions, greenwashing their reputation and cleansing their records of climate destruction.

Finally, universities that maintain close ties to the fossil fuel industry incur a substantial reputational risk. We are proud that many universities have publicly committed to tackling climate change, notably by divesting their endowments from fossil fuels. Yet in allowing fossil fuel companies to fund climate-related research, universities violate their own policies and espoused principles, and undermine their core social and academic mission. Increasingly, fossil fuel industry sponsorship is eroding faith in scientific and cultural institutions’ commitments to climate action, leading a number of such institutions — including, most recently, the National Portrait Gallery in London — to sever ties with the industry. When universities have a pivotal role to play in global conversations about tackling the climate emergency, they cannot afford to have their voices compromised, which is precisely what will happen if they continue to make themselves dependent on the industry most responsible for climate breakdown.

Universities and the research they produce are vital to delivering a rapid, just transition away from fossil fuels. However, such efforts are undermined by fossil fuel industry funding. Academics should not be forced to choose between researching climate solutions and inadvertently aiding corporate greenwashing; our universities must provide an alternative. Wealthy universities in particular have a duty to lead the way in doing so. To all universities, at this moment of extreme crisis, we urge you to heed our call and cut damaging research ties with the fossil fuel industry.

Signed by:

FAQs

Who is “Fossil Free Research” and who is behind this letter?

The letter is endorsed by a wide range of academics, climate experts, and university members calling on US and UK universities to urgently institute a ban on fossil fuel industry funding for climate change-related research. It was drafted by student coordinators of the new Fossil Free Research campaign, who are also organizers with Cambridge Climate Justice and Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, in collaboration with leading academics and experts focused on climate change issues.

Why does the letter only address the leadership of US and UK universities?

We want to see higher education institutions worldwide adopt this ban. We’re starting with US and UK universities because, as some of the most well-resourced and prestigious higher education institutions in the world, in two of the countries most responsible for historic global emissions, they have a responsibility to be the first movers in this effort. So many universities in these countries have also already committed to fossil fuel divestment or climate action, making their extensive ongoing research ties with the fossil fuel industry all the more indefensible. Enacting a fossil fuel funding ban for climate change, environmental, and energy policy-related research is an intuitive and urgently needed next step for these universities to become true climate leaders.

What does the proposed ban include?

As with divestment, it is clear that this is a policy that will be applied differently in different contexts, and so institutions may want to formulate the ban in slightly different ways. However, at a minimum, such a ban must include the Carbon Underground 200, a list of the world’s top 100 coal and top 100 oil and gas publicly traded companies and their subsidiaries. It must also include funding from any company engaged in building new fossil fuel infrastructure or exploring for new reserves, as this blatantly ignores the International Energy Agency’s finding that investment in new fossil fuel supply projects must cease immediately if the world is to limit planetary heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid runaway climate breakdown.

Why do we need a ban on fossil fuel-funded climate change-related research at universities?

Who supports this ban?

This ban is supported by hundreds of leading academics, university affiliates, and experts from a broad range of disciplines in addition to climate, environmental, and energy sciences, economics, and policy. This list includes lead IPCC assessment authors, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the former President of Ireland, world-renowned economists, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and university chancellors. This letter is also supported by numerous university fossil fuel divestment campaigns including Cambridge Climate Justice, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, and Sunrise GW.

What about alternative research funding? Where will the money for this research come from if not from fossil fuel companies?

It is imperative that rich US and UK universities and governments lead the way in ensuring that critical climate change-related research receives the funding it requires. Many universities have large, well-established fundraising departments which have demonstrated a capacity to raise phenomenal sums. Indeed, philanthropic giving to US universities rose by 6.9% in 2021 alone, topping $52 billion dollars. Additionally, it is the duty of governments to step in to provide funding so clearly in the public good when and where it is needed.

Moreover, it is not clear how much funding for climate change-related research comes from the fossil fuel industry to US and UK universities for climate change-related research. That’s because of a strong lack of transparency and disclosure on these universities’ behalf, which raises serious doubts about these universities’ commitments to being responsible climate actors.

As we have already detailed, serious issues arise with any amount of fossil fuel industry funding for climate change-related research. By its very nature, such funding incurs the unjustifiably problematic risk of university climate change-related research being skewed in the direction of fossil fuel companies’ interests as well as being used to support their greenwashing and continued efforts to delay and control the direction of climate action, which has deadly consequences for our community and our planet. It must therefore be an urgent priority for governments and universities to pursue alternative funding pathways to ensure critical climate-related research can be conducted untainted by the biasing, greenwashing effects of fossil fuel industry funding.

Can’t fossil fuel industry funding end up funding good or important climate research at universities, even if the source is undesirable?

There is clear evidence to suggest that accepting fossil fuel industry funding for any climate change, environmental, and energy policy research creates significant conflicts of interest and skews research agendas and outcomes in directions favorable to the fossil fuel industry. This severely undermines the potential positive impact of such research.

Just as importantly, accepting this funding lends much-needed scientific legitimacy to companies who continue to fight against a rapid and just renewable energy transition. Note that no major fossil fuel company has yet aligned its business model with the goals of the Paris Agreement. In this context, affiliations with prestigious university research allow these companies to continue falsely representing themselves as leaders in a green transition they are actively blocking. Even in cases where climate change-related research funded by fossil fuel companies has not been distorted by this funding source, the appearance of compromised academic integrity will be there regardless and impossible to wash away just because disclosure of funding is made.

What precedents exist for this ban?

There are numerous examples of institutions refusing money from certain industries on both scientific and ethical grounds. Since the late 1990s, tobacco companies have increasingly been barred from providing funding for clinical research at many public health institutions (notably including the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Cancer Research UK, and the British Heart Foundation) due to these companies’ extensive record of spreading misinformation about the public health harms of their products. This precedent is crucial given that fossil fuel industry funding of climate-related research presents a similar conflict of interest, with fossil fuel companies employing disinformation tactics directly from the tobacco industry’s playbook.

Over the last decade, we have also seen an overwhelming trend among higher education institutions, non-profit organizations, pension funds, and other major asset managers of divesting from the fossil fuel industry precisely because all of them recognize the industry’s behavior and core business model as being morally reprehensible and at odds with their core values. More recently, prestigious cultural institutions have reached a similar conclusion and begun to sever ties with the fossil fuel industry. For instance, the National Portrait Gallery recently decided to end its 30-year partnership with BP over the company’s appalling environmental record, and there is a major campaign for the Science Museum to do the same.

Why are you making this call amid the Russian invasion in Ukraine and the ripple effects on energy supply?

The call to reject funding from fossil fuel companies for climate change-related research is particularly salient in the wake of the latest IPCC report and the Russian war on Ukraine, which has made abundantly clear the need for vast investment in and development of renewable energy infrastructure for the well-being and survival of our communities and future generations, and global security. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies are cashing in on soaring energy prices to secure record profits and continue to invest tiny proportions of their overall capital budgets on renewables. As these companies exploit the humanitarian crisis for their own gain and work to sustain their deadly core business model, it is obvious that we simply cannot trust these companies with the future of our planet.  Shell’s decision to purchase a tankard of Russian oil in the midst of this crisis represents yet another example of the industry’s commitment to profit-making at the expense of all standards of basic morality and human decency.

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For any press and general inquiries, please contact us at fossilfreeresearch@gmail.com

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