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Investigation looks into fossil fuel industry ties to elite U.S. universities

An investigation published by The BMJ last week delves into funding from fossil fuel companies directed to U.S. universities. The investigation suggests that the companies have motives beyond the sponsored research that are more about self-interest and countering climate change science.

The report comes as student-led movements on a growing number of campuses are calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies and a moratorium on sponsored research from the industry. The report is thought to be the first systematic examination of fossil fuel funding influence across multiple elite campuses.

The investigation looks at schools including Stanford, MIT, and Princeton, where hefty research investments have been made by major industry players like BP and ExxonMobil. In some cases, the research funding was made to centers that were created to study and combat climate change.

The report suggests that some of that funding is in reality intended to push climate change disinformation. The schools involved deny any strings on their research. Princeton, for example,

told The BMJ that the university has authorized a process to dissociate itself from fossil fuel companies that engage in climate disinformation campaigns.

At Stanford, meanwhile, hundreds of students, alumni, faculty, and staff released an open letter earlier this year calling on the university’s Doerr School of Sustainability to refuse funding from fossil fuel companies.

Ben Franta, a Stanford student who is finalizing his PhD on the history of climate disinformation and will join the faculty at Climate Litigation Lab after graduation, says other industries – big tobacco, for example, have used the same research playbook. The goals, he says, “are to obtain the trust of scientists, to paint themselves as part of the solution to the broader public, to keep an eye on what research is being done — even to influence what research gets done, and what doesn’t get done.”

Critics of the research funding often cite carbon capture technology research as a prime example of the problem, claiming it promotes the notion that fossil fuel consumption can continue unabated, because harmful greenhouse gases can be sequestered and locked up underground.

Franta cautions that universities may suffer reputational damage if they continue to take research funds from fossil fuel companies.

“Young people don’t want to work in a lab that is funded by oil companies because these young people want to solve climate change,” he says, adding that most schools will push back against efforts to restrict funding. Those that do “are going to see their reputations decline. This is going to be an issue that is not going away,” Franta says.

Source: EurekAlert!

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