Divest, Sure. Fossil-Free Research? Not So Much.

Major universities take millions from fossil fuel companies despite divestment.

Divestment is one of the largest conversations in student climate activism. Its advocates demand universities stop investing endowments in fossil fuel companies and instead prioritize clean energy. A principle aim of the movement is to ostracize fossil fuel companies from the climate conversation, while ridding them of the social capital that comes from being associated with leading institutions. Divestment supporters argue that the financial resources of education institutions, when combined with adequate government energy policy, can be extremely influential. And it has been. Fossil fuel divestment has become the largest divestment movement in history, with nearly 1,500 institutions having divested by 2021.

Members of Fossil Free Research (FFR) occupied what was then called the BP Institute in Cambridge University in England earlier this year to push for an end to research partnerships with fossil fuel companies. The institute was subsequently renamed the Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows. Photo courtesy of Fossil Free Research.

Yet divestment is not enough on its own. “It’s intuitive that the key industry – fossil fuels — that is continuing to knowingly worsen an escalating global crisis should not be let anywhere near the research into how to stop the crisis,” says Sam Gee, a climate advocate who studies at the University of Cambridge. As long as fossil fuel companies are associated with well-respected names, the companies benefit from associated prestige.

So even when divestment happens, fossil fuel companies continue to fund higher education institutes behind the scenes, including in areas related to climate research. Sponsored professorships, research grants, and investments in spin-off firms mean that money continues to exchange hands between leading research universities and Big Oil.

In many cases, there is little public information available about the income that universities receive from their partnerships with oil, gas, and coal firms. Aden Singh, a student at the University of Cincinnati, is working to determine the extent to which her university’s research is impacted by fossil fuels. She is affiliated with Fossil Free Research (FFR), an international movement run by students and academics that demands the severing of fossil fuel sponsorship and climate research. Singh says she is individually contacting researchers, “asking them for transparency about their funding,” often to little avail. Gee, who is also a campaigner with FFR in the UK, says that it’s essential to publicize the relationship between universities and Big Oil because exposing the industry’s “efforts to thwart effective climate action” (in which partnerships with respected institutions are just one component) is essential to winning a “more just future for everyone.”

Without a clear separation of research from industry-funded sponsorships, Gee says, the academic integrity of climate and environmental research continues to be compromised by industries that have “direct stakes”’ in its outcomes. FFR has previously likened fossil fuel firms funding climate research to tobacco companies funding pulmonary research; there is evidence that this leads to skewed research and flawed outcomes. What’s more, Gee argues it creates an atmosphere where it is harder to “speak without fear or favor” because a loss of funding can severely damage a researcher’s career.

As yet, not a single university has fully adopted this outlook. In fact, some have unabashedly affiliated themselves with fossil fuel firms even post-divestment. The University of California system, for example, divested $1 billion from fossil fuels in 2020, the largest school system in the nation to divest, but its Berkeley campus also renewed a partnership with Shell to support the university’s Energy and Biosciences Institute (EBI), as recently as June 2022.

According to the institute’s program manager, Shelley Brozenick, the EBI is entirely funded by industrial sponsorship, through a five-year, multi-million-dollar commitment. A Daily Californian report says that the partnership has yielded research on advanced energy generation, as well as approaches to sustainable energy production — clear conflicts of interest to Shell’s primary income sources that cannot be trusted. That conflict of interest casts doubts on the research.

In its annual report in 2021, Shell reported $118 billion in integrated gas assets. While this is a decrease from 2016, when it reported $169 billion, both represent a vast sum of money directly in conflict with research activities at UC Berkeley. Universities continue to absorb the good publicity associated with divestment while lapping up funding, making no effort to hide their sources. As per the EBI’s website, “to encourage the synergies necessary for innovative energy research, the EBI solicits sponsorship from the entire portfolio of energy sectors.”

One university that is showing signs of progress is the University of Cambridge, which has been the subject of intense organizing pressure. Here, once-strong relationships are changing amid rising student activism. The university is home to the BP Institute of Sustainability and has accepted 15 million pounds from oil firms, about $18.5 million, since 2017. However, in the immediate aftermath of multiple actions against the BP institute, including an occupation this spring, the university renamed it the Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows.

“Our partnerships support world-leading research which is critical to the energy transition, including battery technology, solar energy, and aviation technology,” a Cambridge spokesperson said in a statement. “The university currently works with partners who are carefully assessed and chosen because they have highly specialist skills and expertise, scale, and access to global markets which can help significantly accelerate the transition towards net zero.”

The university continues to receive funding from BP. But while the renaming may be little more than a publicity move, it offers proof that public pressure can lead to disassociation.

It is clear, though, that there is much work to do. This fall, Cambridge academics were poised to hold a first-ever vote on whether they should accept fossil fuel funding for research. Eighty-four academics submitted a motion to the university’s democratic governing body, arguing that fossil fuels hold no place in an institution like Cambridge. University officials refused to let it be voted on — a clear indication that fossil fuel influence still holds sway.

Advocates say they remain undaunted by such setbacks. “Divestment wasn’t won in a year, and the same will be true of fossil-free research,” Gee says. “Less than a year after [the campaign] launched, this is already getting talked about at the highest echelons of the wealthiest university in western Europe — and we’re just getting started.”

Today, it is clear that universities that have divested their funds from fossil fuels have not committed to the underlying principles behind divestment. Instead, they’ve focused on maintaining good public relations while absorbing as much income from energy companies as possible. This often means reacting to student pressure only when it becomes a public nuisance. The social pressure required to cause a more drastic change in energy production can strongly be driven by institutions. Instead, many are fighting this necessary step by seeing on-campus activists as threatening their status, rather than protecting it.

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