Sustainability school faces backlash over fossil fuel funds

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A protester hoists a sign on stage next to smiling people in suits and dresses. The sign reads "Close the Doerr on Fossil Fuels."

In May, Stanford University announced it would open a new school funded by a gift of $1.1 billion from private equity billionaire John Doerr, the second-largest donation ever made to an institution of higher education. The gift was designated to establish a school of sustainability and climate studies, illustrating the growing concern about climate change among elite institutions and donors alike.

So when Stanford reached out to Naomi Oreskes to speak at the opening ceremony of the Doerr School of Sustainability in September, it seemed like an obvious choice. Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, earned her Ph.D. from Stanford in the 1980s and went on to become one of the leading scholars of climate science history, as well as a fierce advocate for the role of academia in advancing urgent climate solutions.

But Oreskes refused the offer. In her reply to Stanford, she said she did not feel comfortable celebrating the school’s launch because of its willingness to accept money from fossil fuel companies, whose negative influence on climate research has been a subject of her academic work for over a decade.

“I think there’s a very strong case to be made that the fossil fuel industry is not on board with the mission, and that they’re absolutely determined to continue to profit off of a product that is threatening the very viability of our civilization as we know it,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “There was no way I could say yes. It didn’t require a lot of soul-searching.”

Higher education climate and sustainability initiatives have proliferated in recent years, buoyed by eager donors with deep pockets and aspirations of averting climate catastrophe. This renaissance is also reigniting a debate over the consequences of accepting funding for climate research from fossil fuel companies; many students and scholars have expressed worries that the ends may not justify the means—or that the means may even have a corrupting influence.

On the day of the Doerr School launch ceremony, Oreskes gave a teach-in over Zoom about the pernicious influence of fossil fuel money in climate research. Her talk was organized by the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability, a group of Stanford students and faculty advocating for the Doerr School to dissociate completely from oil, gas and coal companies.

In an email statement to Inside Higher Ed, a Stanford spokesperson wrote that Arun Majumdar, the Doerr School’s inaugural dean, had undertaken a “listening tour” over the past few months to “support the creation of a set of shared principles to further guide the school’s actions.”

“We recognize this is an impassioned topic area for members in our community, and more broadly,” the statement read.

Students and Scholars Push Back

The trouble began in May, shortly after the Doerr School’s record-setting gift was announced. Majumdar told The New York Times that the school would be open to working with—and taking money from—fossil fuel companies.

“Not all oil and gas industries are on board, but there are some who are under pressure to diversify, otherwise they will not survive,” Majumdar told the Times. “Those that want to diversify and be part of the solutions, and they want to engage with us, we are open to that.”

“When the dean says, ‘Where the money comes from doesn’t matter,’ that’s laughable,” said Oreskes, echoing the sentiments of Doerr School students who spoke to Inside Higher Ed. “If the fossil fuel industry is sitting at the table with us, that will inevitably influence how we think.”

Majumdar later clarified his comments, saying that the school “does not have plans to seek funding from oil and gas companies for its general operations,” but it plans on honoring partnerships that it will inherit from the Stanford programs that will be incorporated into the school, including those between professors and companies and a slate of “affiliate programs” in which companies like Exxon and Aramco sponsor specific research projects.

But his refusal to commit to fossil-free research funding, as proponents call it, angered many students and scholars committed to the school’s larger mission. That Majumdar has previously held a mechanical engineering professorship endowed by oil magnate Jay Precourt didn’t help, nor did his co-directorship of the Precourt Institute for Energy, which has been the target of years of criticism for its acceptance of fossil fuel money, including a $20 million gift from the Shell Corporation in 2019.

A group of people with signs and backpacks in front of a building that says "School of Sustainability."When the Doerr School held its opening ceremony on Sept. 30, a throng of student protesters gathered outside the building; their chanting could be heard from inside the ceremony hall, according to reports from The Stanford Daily. Since then, more than 800 Stanford students, professors, alumni and staff have signed a petition written by members of the coalition demanding the school take a strong stance against fossil fuel money. Signatories include Rodolfo Dirzo, an associate dean at the Doerr School who is also a professor of environmental science.

“I think taking dirty money is going to push people who are really serious about climate action and sustainability away,” said Yannai Kashtan, a third-year Ph.D. student at Doerr who studies the health impacts of fossil fuels. “It undermines the work we’re doing.”

Students had expressed the same concerns long before the Doerr School came into being. In 2020, Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences—now a part of the Doerr School—circulated a poll among its students asking what their priorities were for a new school of sustainability. A majority said their greatest fear was that the school would accept money from fossil fuel companies, according to results shared with Inside Higher Ed.

Doerr may be the best funded of higher education’s sustainability initiatives to launch in the past few years, but it’s not the only one. In June Harvard University announced the launch of the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, funded by a $200 million donation from private equity billionaire Jean Salata. Columbia University’s Climate School, announced in 2020, was established in part to entice a growing pool of donors motivated by climate initiatives.

Yet Stanford, many activists say, is behind its peers in ensuring funding comes from green sources. The university is one of the last elite holdouts on fossil fuel divestment; its Board of Trustees voted to continue investments in the industry in 2021, while peer institutions including Harvard and Yale announced they would take steps toward divestment. Princeton went even further in October, “dissociating” itself from fossil fuel companies it was previously partners with, a move that Kashtan said he hoped to see replicated by other institutions.

And with $1.69 billion in initial fossil-free funding for the Doerr School, some say there’s no financial justification for the school to take money from oil, gas and coal companies.

“If anyone is in the position to refuse fossil fuel money for these initiatives, it’s Stanford,” Oreskes said.

Ilana Cohen, a junior at Harvard University and a member of Fossil Free Research, said the issue of fossil fuel money influencing climate research at universities is not new; rather, the recent prominence of climate-focused initiatives has shed light on the ties between institutions and the industry.

“It may be new that there are these one-off gifts for big climate research initiatives at the scale at which we’ve seen now at Stanford and Harvard, but it is not new that the fossil fuel industry has its tentacles all up in climate research at major universities,” she said. “There’s been a fundamental failure of duty on behalf of universities to think critically about the ways they set up funding structures for climate research. And they’re really only just now being held accountable for that.”

‘Science Is Not Neutral’

Oreskes has been conducting “research on the research” of climate change for over a decade. Her book Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2011) investigates the influence of corporate funding on scientific integrity and the public policy consequences of that influence.

She compared fossil fuel funding for climate research to tobacco companies bankrolling research on the dangers of smoking, which muddied public understanding of those effects—and subsequent public policy responses—for decades.

“It has a corrupting influence on science because the scientific landscape gets confused, or we could even go so far as to say polluted, by both active disinformation and distracting and deflecting research,” Oreskes said. “Fossil fuel companies have the same kind of history as Big Tobacco in this regard.”

Efforts to get fossil fuel money out of academic research have gained steam in the past few years. Cohen called the movement to expunge fossil fuel money from climate research the “next frontier” after significant divestment victories; in fact, she said, it might even be more important.

“It’s easy to look at climate science research and say, ‘Oh, but it’s not policy related. It’s neutral.’ But science is not neutral. The way that we produce climate science research matters,” she said. “Ultimately it’s going to go out into the world and shape public knowledge and policy, especially if it has the name brand of a major university stamped onto it.”

Mallory Harris, a Ph.D. student in ecology at Stanford and the president of Scientists Speak Up, a student organization that aims to curb the spread of disinformation, said companies can influence the research they finance in “subtle ways.” That includes encouraging scientists to emphasize the “uncertainty” of research showing the ties between fossil fuels and climate change, and directing more funding and media amplification toward studies that are kinder to their industries or more ambiguous about their environmentally destructive practices.

Those influences were detailed in a study published in Nature last month, which found that “non-fossil-fuel-funded centers are more positive towards renewable energy such as solar, hydro and wind power,” and that centers that did receive fossil fuel money had a strong positive bias toward methane.

Accepting money from corporations that continue to harm the environment may have another negative impact, even if the donors themselves don’t influence the research. Harris said that “greenwashing”—pouring money into climate research for positive optics—is a major aim of the industry.

“The big goal is maintaining their social license to continue operating the way they already are,” she said. “They want to avoid scrutiny by creating this image that they want to be part of the solution.”

Kashtan and Harris are still hopeful that the Doerr School will adopt a fossil-free funding policy if they and their fellow organizers keep the pressure on.

It may be working. At an event held by The New York Times in October, John Doerr said the school’s stance on taking fossil fuel money is “not set in stone” and that it will ultimately depend on Majumdar’s meetings with stakeholders.

“Doerr isn’t in charge, but he has a lot of soft power here,” Kashtan said. “I think that’s a really good sign that the campaign is working.”

Editorial Tags:
Sustainability
Image Source:
Philippe Roberge
Image Caption:
A student protester stands on stage with John Doerr and other luminaries at the opening ceremony of Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability. The school’s willingness to accept fossil fuel funding has angered students and scholars.
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