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Universities face mounting pressure to stop taking fossil fuel funds

Students demanded Harvard University divest from fossil fuels on March 29, 2017.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File

Climate activists, emboldened by their success in pushing wealthy universities to divest their stocks from fossil fuel companies, are now looking to a new and even thornier target: the billions of dollars universities accept from those companies for climate research.

Some researchers, including academics at the nation’s most prestigious institutes, say fossil fuel money helps them conduct crucial climate research. Having less of it, they say, could actually slow progress in the fight against climate change.

“I don’t see how that’s a win for the climate or MIT or society,” said Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who led the 2016 study Utility of the Future, which focused on decarbonizing the grid — and was sponsored in part by oil and gas firms.

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But other leading climate experts, citing evidence of the oil industry’s history of disinformation and scientists’ dire calls to phase out fossil fuels, said institutions must cut these ties. Oil companies fund research, they said, that protects their business models, greenwashes their reputations, and distracts from the urgent need to abandon fossil fuels altogether.

Their effort, dubbed the Fossil Free Research campaign, is gaining traction. In March, 500 academics — including climatologist Michael Mann, creator of the iconic “hockey stick” graph of the past millennium’s global temperature rise; Bill McKibben, perhaps the most prominent fossil fuel divestment advocate; and dozens of Ivy League scholars — called on universities to reject oil and gas funding.

“Academics should not be forced to choose between researching climate solutions and inadvertently aiding corporate greenwashing,” they wrote.

In April, Brown University president Christina H. Paxson pledged to update the university’s ethics policies to ban funding from organizations engaging in science disinformation. The move came after faculty criticism of the university for accepting money from the Charles Koch Foundation, which has promoted climate change denial and is led by fossil fuel billionaire Charles Koch.

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Timmons Roberts, an environmental studies and sociology professor at Brown who helped call attention to the Koch funding, is now working with Brown officials to finalize the new rules. He is also starting a project to develop funding principles that can be shared across universities.

“When there’s private interests involved, it distorts how science works,” he said.

It’s not clear how much funding oil companies give institutes in total because neither universities nor companies are required to disclose such relationships. But one 2008 report tracked more than $792 million over 17 years in pledged support for climate research from major oil companies to just nine major universities, while another 2010 study identified 10 university partnerships for energy research with the oil industry totaling $833 million over a decade.

Ben Franta, a graduate fellow studying climate denial at Stanford University, said he suspects the “degree of infiltration” goes even deeper. With Geoffrey Supran, a history of science research associate at Harvard University, he is attempting to quantify current contributions.

Meanwhile, activists are using publicly available information such as archived websites and past investigative reporting to piece together a clearer picture. A recent report from the student activist group Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, for example, notes that an archived version of Harvard’s Geopolitics of Energy Project listed BP as a sponsor.

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It also says Harvard Kennedy School’s Environmental Economics Program and its Project on Climate Agreements, which has engaged with international climate policymakers, have both accepted funding from oil giants Chevron and Shell and gas company Duke Energy. A Harvard webpage lists the philanthropic arm of electricity and gas distributor Enel as a current sponsor.

James F. Smith, a spokesperson for the Harvard Kennedy School, said the school “receives funding from many entities to sustain its work, and none of the funders control the approach or conclusions of that work.”

At MIT, the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change takes funds from fossil fuel companies including Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell, according to its website. The members of MIT’s Future Energies System, an effort launched this year to find carbon-cutting technologies, are mostly fossil fuel companies and utilities, according to an institute statement.

MIT’s illustrious Energy Initiative, which focuses on carbon-cutting energy research, takes money from Chevron, the petroleum refiner Equinor, and the gas company ConocoPhilips. And it counts three oil and gas companies — ExxonMobil, Shell, and the Italian firm Eni — as top funders, each pledging more than $25 million over 5 years, according to Robert Armstrong, the institute’s director and Chevron professor of chemical engineering.

Armstrong said that his institute invites corporate research sponsors to weigh in on how their money is spent and to provide relevant data and information to academics. But he said academics have the final say over the conclusions and “MIT insists on the right to publish research results.”

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Ignacio Perez-Arriaga, who co-led sponsored research for MIT’s energy institute with Knittel, said research done “in a vacuum” without industry buy-in won’t advance the energy transition.

“The only way of doing useful research in the power sector is to have contact with the power sector,” he said.

Sergey Paltsev, senior research scientist at MITEI who has led sponsored research projects — including a 2019 report on decarbonizing transit — said oil companies’ knowledge and data also help him come up with economically and technologically feasible ways for them to lessen their environmental impact.

In the past, the industry has come under fire for funding climate-denying academic research. But Paltsev says firms know better now.

“They know they are part of the problem,” said Paltsev, who is also deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “Now we need to help them change.”

In a statement, Andrea Woods, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute — the oil and gas industry’s largest US trade association — said the fossil fuel industry is “driving progress” on climate change with academics. And a Shell spokesperson said that the company has “invested billions in delivering low-carbon energy to our customers,” and that it supports the goals of the Paris climate change agreement and aims to become a “net-zero emissions energy business by 2050.” Research is important to those goals, the spokesperson said.

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But leaders of the Fossil Free Research campaign argue oil companies’ changes are mostly posturing. They note that the companies’ expenditures on clean technology research still pale in comparison to their investment in fossil fuels, and that studies show their climate plans are too weak to align with the Paris Climate Accord.

Ilana Cohen, a Harvard undergraduate and lead campaigner with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, said universities quietly lend companies “social license” by allowing them to distract from their planet-warming business models and helping them delay the clean energy transition.

One way they do that, critics say, is by funding research that suggests renewable energy solutions are too expensive or otherwise infeasible. And they fund scholarship that buttresses the continued use of gas, as well as carbon capture and other technologies that can justify their ability to continue extracting fossil fuels. Proposals that have energy companies’ buy-in, they say, will never yield necessary transformative change.

Franta, the Stanford researcher, likened such efforts to tobacco companies’ history of sponsoring cancer research that was “not fraudulent, not fake, but sort of distracting,” he said. “An example is studying the effects of heredity or viruses or stress on the disease, but ignoring the role of tobacco.”

Even well-intentioned academics may be susceptible to cognitive bias toward their funders, said Suhaas Bhat, a student at Harvard and Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaigner.

“Subconscious bias ... can subtly shift results in ways you might not even notice,” he said, citing a 2020 study that found researchers were significantly more likely to find that nicotine improves cognitive performance if they were funded by cigarette producers.

Numerous research institutions now reject tobacco funding, Bhat noted.

Cohen, the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaigner, said it’s time for fossil fuel companies to receive the same treatment.

“It’s not clear how we can have meaningful dialogue around climate action, or researchers ... who can speak out against the industry’s misinformation, while the industry is our funding source,” she said.


Dharna Noor can be reached at dharna.noor@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.