Report: 27 Universities Received Over a Half-Billion Dollars From Fossil Fuel Industry

Environmental activist groups Data for Progress and Fossil Free Research tracked some $677 million in fossil fuel industry funding to 27 U.S. universities between 2010 and 2020.
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Updated on April 25, 2023
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  • The University of California, Berkeley; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and George Mason University were the top three recipients of fossil fuel funds.
  • The report found that a minimum of $677 million was transferred to 27 universities to fund research, including climate research.
  • The report calls for universities to have funds transparency, a more rigorous university conflict-of-interest gift policy, and a ban on all fossil fuel funding.

The fossil fuel industry has leveraged corporate windfalls to gain influence across higher education by providing more than $675 million in funding to 27 top research universities, according to a new report by environmental activist groups.

Data for Progress and Fossil Free Research combed through IRS 990 forms, foundation reports, school databases, school reports, and news sources to quantify how much funding was flowing from the fossil fuel industry to higher education between 2010 and 2020.

Their report, "Accountable Allies: The Undue Influence of Fossil Fuel Money in Academia," found that the top recipients of funding from the fossil fuel industry were the University of California, Berkeley ($154 million); the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ($108 million); and George Mason University ($64 million).

Of the 27 institutions found to have accepted funding from the fossil fuel industry, 10 have divested their endowments from fossil fuels.

Universities play a unique role in the global economy because they own massive amounts of intellectual and physical capital, the report said. The financialization of education has directed students to labor toward a particular cause and redefine issues more than any other group, especially against climate change, it said.

"However, when these institutions look the other way as climate deniers, fossil fuel interests, and discredited backers of pseudoscience capitalize on their name and credibility, universities undermine these commitments and other positive actions," the report said.

"When universities allow fossil fuel companies to buy and advertise connections to university research on key climate and energy issues, they provide these companies with much-needed scientific and cultural legitimacy."

According to the report, Stanford University accepted more than $56 million, used for five energy-focused projects.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) accepted at least $40 million, including funding for the MIT Energy Initiative, according to the report. The report said the initiative released a 2011 report that advocated for natural gas to be the bridge to a "low-carbon future" while dismissing research that found it more harmful because of methane leaks.

Fossil fuel industry donors have also sat on climate-focused institute boards at Princeton University and MIT.

The report cited an analysis by UnKoch My Campus, which shows that contracts may even grant donors the right to review, edit, or censor research before publication. George Washington University reportedly let the American Petroleum Institute proofread research before publication.

However, the most common practice is a subtle influence on research. The Data for Progress and Fossil Free Research report cited several studies that show that even in the absence of specific fossil fuel industry favors, funding can still skew research in the aggregate.

"Once a question or topic is funded, dependence on the funding source can incentivize researchers to avoid conclusions that might threaten the possibility of future grants," the report says. "It's these subtle incentives that have most effectively hindered academics' ability to pursue unrestricted inquiry, putting academic freedom at risk."

Among the report's recommendations is that individual institutions improve transparency through publicly accessible databases showing funding sources, establish rigorous conflict-of-interest gift policies, and ban all funding from fossil fuel industry sources.