#12 – Fossil Fuel Money Skews University Climate and Energy Research

by Shealeigh
Published: Last Updated on

Fossil fuel companies have been donating millions of dollars to US universities for climate and energy research projects, according to reports published in March 2023 by the Guardian and The Nation, based on a study produced by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank. Fossil fuel funding, The Nation reported, aims to “skew the results, timing, and presentation of scientific research.” 

Even as Princeton University announced in September 2022 that it would divest from fossil fuels, dozens of universities in the United States continue to accept millions of dollars from ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and allied interests, such as Koch Industries, to fund climate and energy research. Based on its examination of twenty-seven universities that together received more than $667 million in fossil fuel donations or pledges between 2010 and 2020, Data for Progress reported that the top recipients of fossil fuel funding were the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; George Mason University; Stanford; the University of Texas at Austin; MIT; Princeton; Rice; Texas A&M; and Harvard. UC Berkeley alone accepted $154 million during the 2010s.

“Fossil-fuel firms have purposely sought to ‘colonize’ academia with industry-friendly science, rather than seed overt climate denial,” the Guardian reported on March 27, 2023, quoting Ben Franta, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford who studies the industry’s influence on universities. In its March 1, 2023, report, the Guardian quoted Bella Kumar, the lead author of the Data for Progress study: “These research projects have real-life implications,” Kumar stated, noting, for example, that “fossil fuel-funded research has re-centered natural gas in the conversation about renewables.”

Although the Guardian and The Nation helped focus public attention on the issue, the nation’s most prominent newspapers have reported it only fitfully, with the strongest accounts appearing as opinion articles or relegated to online content [Note: See, for example, Ilana Cohen and Michael E. Mann, “Climate Research Funded by Fossil Fuel Profits Discredits Universities and Hurts the Planet,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2022; Hiroko Tabuchi, “Kicking Oil Companies Out of School,” New York Times, August 16, 2022]. A May 2023 report by CBS News directly addressed the Data for Progress study, stating that “many schools, including Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, accept donations from oil and gas companies to support climate change research.” However, CBS News emphasized student efforts to encourage divestment, and, in contrast with the Guardian’s coverage, its report did little to illuminate how funding from Big Oil and its allies promotes industry-friendly research, rather than overt climate denial.

Project Censored has previously covered problems with fossil fuel companies funding university research, noting in its 2018 yearbook that corporate news media rarely discussed the subject. It would appear that little has changed.

Oliver Milman, “Exxon in the Classroom: How Big Oil Money Influences US Universities,” The Guardian, March 27, 2023.

Abby Saks and Phoebe Barr, “Fossil Fuel Companies Are Donating Millions to Skew University Research,” The Nation, March 30, 2023.

Amy Westervelt, “Fossil Fuel Companies Donated $700m to US Universities Over 10 Years,” The Guardian, March 1, 2023.

Student Researcher: Angel Kifer (Frostburg State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)