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.