7 things you should think about before funding research with fossil fuel money

Universities are under increasing pressure to divest from fossil fuels, with student activism taking a lead in Go Fossil Free campaigns the world over.

But there’s a lot more to universities’ interactions with the fossil fuel industry than investments. There’s the money fossil fuel industry invests in universities — sponsored research and people — as well as courses designed with careers in oil, gas and coal in mind. Senior staff from universities and fossil fuel companies sit on each others’ boards. The fossil fuel industry is sometimes labelled anti-science, but that’s far from the truth. They love science — or particular bits of science — they’re heavily reliant on it.

Environmental campaigners say the academy is selling their credibility for carbon-dirty cash. Universities defending such interaction argue that there’s a difference between engagement and servitude and, as the fossil fuel industry is still a key part of modern life, it’s their duty to work with them. Moreover, with science funding being cut in many countries, academics increasingly feel grateful for whatever money they can get, regardless of where it comes from. And the relationship between the academy and extractive industries goes way back. Just think of how many geology departments are still known as a School of Mines.

Whatever your view, here are seven challenges for universities to considering when engaging in what’s increasingly controversial work with the fossil fuel industry.


Companies often say an advantage of working with academics is that they will give it to them straight. It is the independence of the scientific mind industry wants, they don’t want to corrupt it.

But it’s all too easy for a member of staff to self-censor because they think it’s the right thing to do, even when it’s not. So invest in training to help staff work effectively with industry (and politicians and campaigners for that matter). Staff who are experienced working with the fossil fuel industry can teach others. But, equally, appreciate to perspectives of those who haven’t worked with such industries before too — including the more sceptical voices — who may have lot to offer too.

Money vs engagement

You might have a well honed case for engagement with industry. But engagement — mutual learning — is different from taking money from someone. Indeed, the latter may well interfere with your ability to do the former. You might want to take money from the fossil industry as well as engage with them, but be careful not to confuse the two.

Is climate change special?

There’s a long history of protest over universities’ involvement in war, which similarly calls for divestment and criticises particular research projects, curricula and interaction between senior members of staff. But concerns over climate change are qualitatively different, because they come from the university itself.

Further, universities are inter-generational spaces. They often value tradition, especially in more elite institutions, but the are also full of young people, with a remit for considering the future. So you might expect protest from students, as well as staff who feel a duty of care for them.


So you’ve made the decision to take money from Big Oil Corp TM, or maybe you’ve signed an agreement of research understanding with Frackers-R-Us. You thought about it, and decided it was a good idea. Then you told staff and students, and now there are a load of people hosting a die-in outside your office.

Did you consult in advance? Does decision-making at your university involve a diverse range of people in the institution — and outside it — or is it largely a matter of what the great and the good choose to pass on from on-high? If you believe a tightly managed top-down management is appropriate, be honest about that. But be prepared for some backlash.


Be as open as possible about the ways in which the deal was made, and what it means. If you get a freedom of information request, answer it. But really, being FOI-ed in the first place is a sign there’s a problem in your public engagement and media policy — any information anyone might want should be there already. Unless you do have something to hide (or are ok with peopling assuming you do).

What aren’t you studying? How will you fund that?

A common criticism of industry sponsored research is that it will corrupt the science. But arguably that a red herring of a larger problem, which is that it focuses researchers attention towards particular issues. It’s more about what questions you ask, not the answers you get.

For example, you might research materials that you hope will make great oil rigs, and leave that great proposal on prosthetics to gather dust. So be cognisant of what’s left aside while you’re building research agendas with industry, and imaginative about how to fund raise for that too. Otherwise you’re simply not doing science with all eyes open.


You’re claiming that your deal with Frackers-R-Us doesn’t corrupt research. Indeed, you think it’s challenged the industry to be safer and more carbon efficient. Brilliant. Prove it.

This might well take time but at least put systems for collecting information in place early on, so the data is there when you need it. Invest in research to reflect on the sorts of questions you should be asking and places to be looking. You are a university — believe in the power of inquiry.

Written by . Published on February 12, 2015. Last edited on March 4, 2015.

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  1. David Walker

    Can we assume that all academic institutions will disconnect themselves from the power grid to ensure that they never use any electricity derived from fossil fuel powered generation?

    And that all students and faculty members will immediately do the same to their residences, not to mention divesting themselves of their cars and ceasing to use any transport driven by petroleum products and ceasing to utilise any product that is in any dependent on oil or gas for its construction and distribution?


    So just a bunch of ignorant, arrogant hypocrites, in other words.

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