Fossil Free Research and Data for Progress released a report Wednesday on fossil fuel funding at prominent U.S. universities. According to the report, campus has received $155.9 million from big oil and fossil fuel companies between 2010 and 2020.
The report showed the majority of campus funding came from oil industry company BP.
Fossil Free Research is a group that has existed for almost a year, according to its director and one of the lead researchers on the project, Jake Lowe. The group began last spring when they launched an open letter calling on universities to reject fossil fuel industry funding for climate and energy related research, which has reached 850 signatures from academics.
“We realized that there was an interest in this issue, and we also know that it is notoriously difficult to access this information of who funds universities, so we thought the timing was right and there was a need to render visible fossil fuel funding at research universities,” Lowe said.
He added that the research started around September 2022.
The research was conducted by a group of six university students from George Washington, Princeton, Ohio State and Harvard, alongside some professionals at Data for Progress.
The project relied mostly on tax forms, and it disclosed funding in annual reports from universities and news articles to compile their research.
Lowe noted not all of the money given to universities by fossil fuel companies was for climate research; there were also general donations, gift matching programs and business school funding.
“If you’re okay with accepting fossil fuel funding as a university, you should also be okay with sharing that information publicly,” Lowe said.
According to Lowe, campus is “unique” in terms of transparency, being the only university in the entire report that offered confirmation from administration with specified funding received from fossil fuel industries.
Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof echoed this sentiment in an email, stating ever since the 1930s, campus policy makes clear that research and results will be openly and publicly published, such that others can have access to the results of research.
That is the nature of “fundamental” research, Mogulof said. Some other universities may enter into partnerships where results are confidential, known as “restricted” research.
“The vast majority of that funding — approximately $122.1 million — was funding for the Energy Biosciences Institute, and that funding can only be used to support the discovery and development of sustainable energy alternatives and carbon capture technologies,” Mogulof said in the email.
He also noted during the 10-year period in which this funding was offered, campus received $8.13 billion in overall research funding, with fossil fuel funding accounting for less than 2% of total research funding.
Lowe believes there are two core reasons fossil fuel companies choose to invest in university research: to influence climate research and “green wash” their reputation.
“By funding university research, fossil fuel companies can kind of be on the pulse of what kind of climate research is being done and make sure that climate research benefits their interest as best they can,” said Lowe. “Ultimately, that kind of research goes on to inform policy decisions.”
He stated the deeper the companies’ ties are to these “prestigious institutions,” the harder it is for them to be “discredited” as part of negative climate impact.
The research study also looked at university favorability before and after respondents were told about fossil fuel-funded climate research.
On campus, favorability dropped from 44% to 38%, according to a poll that included 1,230 participants.
The same poll also showed 77% of voters supported the implementation of funding transparency within universities.
Associate Director of Media Relations for the University of California Office of the President Ryan King noted in an email that the UC has taken initiatives toward sustainability.
“The University’s fossil-free investment portfolio recently surpassed a five-year goal of investing $1 billion in clean energy, and our system uses more green power than any other college or university in the country,” Kang said in the email.
He added that 55% of the UC’s electricity derives from renewable or carbon-free sources.
According to Mogulof, from 2014 to 2022, campus has also signed $147 million in funding contracts for research projects related to climate change and sustainable energy technology.
“It’s surprising that this issue of fossil fuel funding research, especially climate research, has gone kind of unnoticed for so long,” Lowe said. “We just hope that it will get the ball rolling and force administrators to reckon with this, force faculty to think more critically about it and energize students to get involved and do something about it.”