How 6 Students Uncovered Over $500M in Fossil Fuel Funding Across 27 Universities

From summer 2022 to February 2023, six student researchers from Fossil Free Research investigated fossil fuel companies' influence on higher education. Their report found $677 million in fossil fuel funding from 27 universities from 2010-2020.
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Updated on May 23, 2023
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  • The research team at Fossil Free Research collected and analyzed the report that found $677 million in fossil fuel research funding across 27 universities.
  • Data for Progress usually hires professionals to conduct research, but FFR believed it would be right to hire students who are deeply dedicated and involved in fossil-free funding advocacy.
  • FFR Executive Director Jake Lowe said the report gave FFR room to grow as an organization by teaching research practices to students involved in various climate activism campaigns on their campuses.

As her internship at Data for Progress (DFP), a progressive research firm, was coming to an end, Bella Kumar, a student climate activist at The George Washington University (GW), decided to pitch an idea — a data investigation into higher education's funding from fossil fuels.

After all, DFP was interested in climate research, and she knew the right researchers for the job. DFP was immediately on board, but Kumar had one special request.

"Hey, these students are already doing this work," she told DFP leadership. "It would be wrong of us to try to get people who are disconnected from this issue to do this work when there's already a bunch of students that are doing this not for any money and just for the benefit of public knowledge about fossil fuel money."

"And how awesome would it be to just be able to pay them to do the same work that they're already doing?"

Their response?

"Yeah, so true. Let's do it," Kumar said they told her.

The "Accountable Allies: The Undue Influence of Fossil Fuel Money in Academia" project began last summer when the lead author Kumar, a Fossil Free Research (FFR) member and Sunrise GW member, and FFR Executive Director Jake Lowe led the project that would find over half-a-billion dollars in fossil fuel funding at 27 major universities from 2010-2020.

Lowe said DFP usually hires professional research consultants for their data reports.

"That probably would have been the easier choice for Data for Progress," Lowe said, a recent graduate from GW.

He said the team was excited that DFP decided to partner with FFR, which he considers crucial because the only reason people are interested in fossil fuel money in higher education is because of students' efforts.

"It just felt more powerful to keep this research project in the movement in that sense and let the people who have been doing the work to bring this issue to the forefront to continue doing that research rather than passing it off," said Lowe.

So, almost immediately after putting the word out about this paid opportunity to their networks, Lowe and Kumar formed the team:

Lowe and Kumar, Harvard University student Phoebe Barr, Princeton University student Claire Kaufman, Ohio State University student Chelsey Gilchrist, and George Washington University student Victoria Freire.

Lowe said the project gave FFR room to grow as an organization. It equipped new teachers to share research practices with students involved in various climate activism campaigns on their campuses.

Lowe was a research lead and shared his research experience with the team. He said his time researching the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center played a huge role in the methodology needed to put together a report.

Lowe started his first year at GW when the pandemic began. He virtually joined the Sunrise Movement at GW in 2021 when they started researching the center to find its funding, which was mainly from the fossil fuel company Koch.

During his time at Sunrise, a faculty member allowed the organization to research conflicts of interest within the center.

"So I spent a full semester of my sophomore year kind of in that spring of 2021, doing a super deep dive into this one center," said Lowe. "I learned a lot through that process on how to just Google and Google and Google and find all kinds of fun stuff."

He then became a student organizing fellow with the activism group UnKoch My Campus. Here he learned more research and organizational skills, which turned research into a report.

He took his knowledge to the team, who already knew the best research practices and the fossil fuel industry's influence on higher education. They only needed the specifics of how and where to look for money.

Kumar was the mediator between the team and DFP and did data cleaning and some school research. She began writing the report before collecting all the data, correctly anticipating the results.

"We knew when we were going into this that we were gonna find a ton of money and that it was gonna be really bad," Kumar said. "Because we all, separately at our own universities, have seen that happen.

"So I did the research and found the resources to build an academic argument against fossil fuel money and did that work. Then we put in the data to back it up at the end."

While excited to begin this work, they quickly found they couldn't find fossil fuel funding across the whole U.S. higher education system. So they took a handful of universities, 27, to represent the bigger issue.

Under Lowe's direction, the team started at fossil fuel companies' nonprofit foundation wings, which are required to report donations through a 990 form. These foundations only tell part of the story, though.

"Those corporate wings might still dump millions of dollars into a university that they don't have to report," Lowe said. "So you're able to see the small philanthropic fraction of what was being given through those 990s."

Next, they looked through annual reports by units within universities, like business school and arts and science school reports. Lowe said sometimes the units would disclose specific donors, but it was a toss-up as to if they would disclose a dollar value or a wide range.

The final spot was old news articles announcing research grants or partnerships with fossil fuel companies, which turned up the largest numbers.

"I think the hardest part is just when you're looking for information that way, it's a little scrappy and a little patchwork," said Lowe. "So, it feels like you can always keep going, and at some point, you just have to stop."

One of the greatest challenges of patching an opaque story from different sources was overlap. If they found a news article highlighting a grant, they had to ensure they didn't double-count the money from a 990 form or any other document.

"That challenge was especially frustrating because it's like, it's not our fault," said Lowe. "It's just the fact of the matter is; there's such little transparency that we can only do so much."

He said it was a little demoralizing to have a 2012 $500 gift-matching donation from Shell be the best they could find. But when you look at hundreds of small contributions by multiple companies over multiple years, you see a systemic issue.

Transparency wasn't the only thing giving the team mixed feelings — so were the universities' responses to fact-checks.

Kumar said that when exclusive journalist partner Amy Westervelt reached out to the universities to fact-check the numbers, only the University of California, Berkeley responded with a list of funding.

"We were like, 'What the hell?'"

"A big journalist comes talking, and your reputation is at risk — now you'll disclose that," Kumar said. "But after students that you're supposed to be responding to and supposed to be representing have been asking this for years, you have nothing to say about it?"

She said it was still an accomplishment for Berkeley students to have official word from the university and to put the university as a source for the report.

Team logistics were equally as challenging.

The team consisted of students from Princeton, GW, Harvard, and Ohio State, and scheduling times to talk took a lot of work between busy schedules and time zones.

"These students all have full class schedules," said Lowe. "They're all volunteering their time to be part of these campus groups and organize on their campus. While attempting to have social lives and find time to, like, sleep and eat in between all of that."

He said you could either respect people's time and move slower or get fast results from a team of overwhelmed, burned-out researchers.

Kumar said mistakes come with student research, and the hidden and confusing nature of finding the fossil fuel money didn't help either.

"There were about 5 million times during the project where someone would miss something, or someone would overcount something, or there would be a math error and things like that," Kumar said.

The toughest data collection cleaning for Kumar and Lowe came nearly a month before publication when Kumar was fact-checking the appendices.

"I just kept catching stuff. And every time, it was just like, 'Oh my God, how can we know that any of this is right if I found this one error?'" Kumar said.

She said DFP doesn't mess around — if the data is wrong, it could damage its reputation. So they did what good researchers do; they checked and checked and checked the data.

"There were periods of time where me and Jake were in Jake's apartment or my apartment for like 12 hours going over every single data point and making sure that it all added up," Kumar said.

"It was really, truly funny. It was just so much time. Me and Jake would buy like a case of La Colombe Cold Brews or Yerba Mate and go through that trying to do the," she paused to laugh, "...oh my God, dude."

She said you can be sure the data is correct as can be now.

A student does research on the fossil fuel industry.
Photo Courtesy of Bella Kumar

Lowe said the dollar amount isn't the only conflict of interest in higher education. Some individuals with ties to the fossil fuel industry sit in powerful university positions.

Those ties are FFR's next target.

Now that the report has been published, Lowe said there's still so much research on oil money in higher education left. But now that they have the methodology down, they can build on it by finding new creative ways to uncover those relationships.

"Now, this is just beginning to bring visibility to an issue that's been neglected for a long time," Lowe said. "It's crazy to me to think that this divestment movement has existed for over a decade, and even as universities have pledged divestment, the industry-funded researchers have kind of gone unnoticed for a long time."

While Lowe stays at Fossil Free Research as executive director, Kumar is taking a step back to focus on work at GW in the Sunrise Movement. She hopes that students win the "no fossil fuel money" campaign at GW and that other universities can learn from the robust organizing structure at GW.

After her last two years at GW, Kumar is not sure what she will do next.

"I don't know what I want to do with my life. I would like to just be a little farmer. I would like to grow food and live with my cats in D.C."

"I want the fossil fuel industry to die, and I would like the planet to live on. So if you want to know the things that I really want to see before I go, those are the things I want to see."