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Christian Downie and Jeremy Baumberg

Funding from fossil fuel industry could threaten integrity of research, academic workshop finds

Calls have been made for a unified policy for higher education institutions to address the risks posed from fossil fuel research funding.

A briefing note summarising the findings of a recent workshop recommends higher education sector take steps to protect against industry influence on research practices and findings, including by banning research funding, collaborations, or sponsorships specifically from firms, trade associations, or associated organisations that directly or indirectly engage in political activities that disseminate climate misinformation.

The one-day workshop, which took place at Jesus College’s Intellectual Forum, brought together leading social scientists from universities across the UK, Europe and the United States who have pioneered research into the political activities of fossil fuel industries and their impact on university research.

Christian Downie, Associate Professor at Australian National University, led the workshop and developed the briefing note. He said universities have an obligation to reconsider their research relationships with fossil fuel industries.

“We know that many of the firms and industry groups that provide funding to universities do so to shape policy and public opinion in ways that are consistent with their commercial interests and not the science on climate change”.

“We also know that some of these organisations spend tens of millions of dollars (USD) each year funding lobbying and other activities designed to delay and block action on climate policy,” he said.

As outlined in the report, the workshop found that firms and trade associations in the fossil fuel sector have worked to block, water down, or delay attempts by governments to implement climate policies. Fossil fuel lobbying outstrips that of green energy lobbying by a ratio of 10:1; recent estimates suggest that among trade associations in the United States, the renewable sector is outspent on lobbying by a ratio of 14:1.

Significant sums of money are also channelled by trade associations as grants, including research grants to universities. The briefing note states that while the full extent of fossil fuel funding is unknown, investigative reporting suggests that British universities have received around £90m in funding from major oil companies since 2017.

"Industry influence on public opinion, policymaking, and even research priorities and outcomes is pervasive, with dramatic consequences for the planet and human wellbeing. The fossil fuel industry in particular is at the heart of efforts to delay and obstruct the action necessary to combat climate change in the small and shortening timeframe in which we can still make a difference", said Timmons Roberts of Brown University. "Universities need to be independent of influence that seeks to undermine the development and application of knowledge on this crisis". 

Ben Franta of the University of Oxford added: "For over two decades, fossil fuel funding in universities has influenced research agendas and compromised academic freedom. As the need for effective solutions to the climate emergency becomes ever more urgent, research integrity and academic freedom must be protected. It's long past time for a hard look at the influence of fossil fuel funding in academia". 

The academics who participated in the workshop recommend that an international congress of higher education leaders be convened as soon as possible to develop an appropriate and credible policy to address the risks posed from fossil fuel research funding in a concerted connected push.

Jesus College Fellow Prof Jeremy Baumberg said the collaborative nature of the recommendation was key. “Everywhere around the world is trying to engage with this”, he noted. “What really needs to happen is a much larger-scale interaction where people are working together”.

"Universities play a pivotal role in driving forward critical research, particularly in the realm of climate change", said Joana Setzer of the London School of Economics and Political Science. "This is a welcome call for academic institutions to improve safeguards against undue corporate influence hindering progress in addressing climate crises. Urging universities to set up transparency measures, including stringent disclosure policies on funding and academic affiliations, underscores their commitment to integrity. Establishing an international oversight body to scrutinize the political endeavours of fossil fuel entities could be a helpful and proactive step towards safeguarding academic independence and fostering impactful environmental action". 

Read the full Briefing Note.