'It's like tobacco funding health research': should universities take money from fossil fuel?

Posted on: 2018-11-22 11:30:00

Naomi Pratt, a PhD student, is leading Divest Imperial, a student protest group against Imperial’s £9m investment in oil companies.
 Naomi Pratt, a PhD student, is leading Divest Imperial, a student protest group against Imperial’s £9m investment in oil companies. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

At a recent green innovation event at Imperial College, London, PhD candidate Naomi Pratt and several other students handed out flyers. They were holding elephants on sticks, or “oilophants”, to represent the elephant in the room at the discussion: Imperial’s links with the fossil fuel industry. “Within two minutes we had security guards coming round saying ‘you can’t hand out flyers here, you can’t have this sign. Move along, you’ve made your point,’” Pratt says.

Pratt is the leader of Divest Imperial, a group set up to pressure the university to eliminate financial investments in fossil fuel companies from its endowment fund, and reduce its reliance on research funding from the fossil fuel industry. Although their protests are not always shut down, the recent event wasn’t her only experience of being asked to stop flyering in a public part of campus. “It’s a stark example of how Imperial is run as a business, and how it’s trying to control its image,” she says.

Imperial ranks in the bottom tier of People & Planet’s annual sustainability ranking for universities. In response to the poor performance, it produced a report aimed at understanding what had gone wrong. Of the staff and students surveyed for their views, 98% felt the university should be doing more on sustainability and climate change.

Pratt sees any concern about the links as window-dressing, given that in reality the university “is almost like an extension of the [fossil fuel] industry”. Imperial is proud of its relationships with fossil fuel companies, from which it receives valuable research funding and funded professorships, as well as input into degree programmes that produce the next generation of oil and gas engineers.

In addition to questioning Imperial’s relationships with the industry, Pratt is troubled by their access to students and the campus. Fossil fuel companies make regular appearances at careers fairs, and some courses have mandatory field trips sponsored by the oil and gas sector. “They have an almost ubiquitous presence on campus,” she says. “You hear students repeating industry lines back to you: ‘we’re going to need fossil fuels for x amount of years, it’s important to have an energy mix.’”

Imperial is not alone, though its strength in science means it’s considered to have some of the deepest links with the industry. Cambridge University received an estimated £1.9m – or 0.4% of its total funding – from oil and gas companies in 2016, according to research by the Zero Carbon Cambridge campaign group. Other universities, including Aberdeen, Oxford, Warwick and Sheffield, are known to have similar ties.

Can universities justify these relationships? Imperial says it works with industrial partners to find “solutions to the world’s need for energy”, alongside research aimed at reducing the environmental impact of fossil fuels – through carbon capture and storage, for example, or battery technology and solar cells. It defends its investments as enabling its endowment to better invest in research and education.

But the fossil fuel industry is under increasing pressure following a recent UN report, which criticised its efforts to limit climate breakdown. The report warns that the world needs a 45% cut to carbon pollution by 2030 to limit the temperature rise to 1.5C. Recent protests by climate activists in London have ramped up in its wake.

Chris Saltmarsh, a co-director at People & Planet, says that although fossil fuel divestment has been the most successful student environmental campaign, there is growing concern about universities’ wider links with the fossil fuel industry. “Students are saying these companies need to be challenged – do they deserve any space on our campuses at all?” he says. “We don’t think it’s right for universities to be profiting from or investing in companies driving the climate crisis.”

Part of the reason the movement hasn’t gained the same traction as divestment, in Saltmarsh’s view, is that fossil fuel relationships can be hard to map, and are in some cases “deliberately opaque”.

“It would take a policy shift on a governmental or supra-governmental level to outlaw fossil fuel companies from research partnerships,” he says. “We would argue that all public research institutions and any other companies investing in research for the public good shouldn’t be associating themselves with fossil fuel. Any relationship is either profiting them directly or bulking up their reputation so that they can continue to extract.”

The picture is similar in the US, where Ben Franta, a PhD student at Stanford University, is working on a study mapping how much research is funded by the oil and gas industry. He believes there has been an “invisible colonisation of academia” by fossil fuel companies. “I think that most people are still largely unaware of the pervasiveness of oil industry funding in academia, especially for climate and energy research,” he says. “The full picture of the ubiquity of this funding is not really known yet.”

A protest by Divest Imperial at Imperial College, London on 21 November, as part of People & Planet’s Fossil Free Day of Action.
A protest by Divest Imperial at Imperial College, London on 21 November, as part of People & Planet’s Fossil Free Day of Action. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian

Like Pratt, Franta cut his teeth in the divestment movement. It was only when he observed that professors who were vocal against divestment often received funding from the oil and gas industry that he realised how insidious these relationships can be. He sees it as only a matter of time before campaigns start to target research funding and the visibility of oil and gas companies on campus.

“One of the amazing things about this whole story is that all this has happened without anyone really knowing about it,” Franta says. “When most people hear about this situation they’re pretty shocked by it. They think: ‘this doesn’t make sense – it’s like tobacco funding health research, there’s a clear conflict of interest here.’”

Among academics, attitudes are conflicted. James Dyke, a visiting environmental sciences academic at Southampton University, is a staunch advocate of the need for radical action to slow down climate change. Yet he acknowledges the defences of fossil fuel relationships that some colleagues offer. These companies are aware of the significance of climate change, but the global economy would collapse if they stopped producing overnight. Equally, they plug serious gaps in research funding, without which some departments would be forced to close.

“Universities should ideally be places to work with those companies to allow them to transform,” Dyke says. “Walking away and taking the moral high ground – ‘we won’t take your money’ - means cutting off what could be a critical player in the required transition.”

The problem is that fossil fuel companies aren’t working towards the transition to a lower carbon economy in any meaningful way. According to Mat Hope, editor of environmental investigative journalism website DeSmog, much of the money from the oil and gas industry goes towards funding research that will help companies continue to operate in the North Sea region for many more years – by drilling in deeper and more treacherous waters, for example. “This is despite climate scientists explicitly stating that the industry will have to be rapidly shut down,” he says.

Hope sees the support for universities from fossil fuel companies as part of a deliberate strategy to soften their image. “They are trying to become an integral part of the economics of higher education as a means to encourage a favourable tax environment, and ensure ongoing local and national government support for the industry,” he says. “All despite the UK’s climate commitments.”

Rachel Hall
Source: The Guardian

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