Fossil fuel's infiltration and control of academia: The elephant's arse in the room

Last March, The Guardian ran a story in its Climate Change (Climate Consensus - The 97%) Section coauthored by Drs. Geoffrey Supran (PhD '17 MIT, Post Doctoral Fellow at Harvard's Department of History of Science, Postdoctoral Associate at MIT's Institute for Data, Systems and Society, former leader of Fossil Free MIT) and Benjamin Franta (former Harvard Research Fellow in Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School's Belfer Center), regarding the fossil fuel industry's infiltration and domination of academic institutions and their research; and how this relationship between academia and polluters poses a serious threat to the battle against global climate change.  A month earlier, Dr. Franta's alma mater - Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center - had hosted a film and event touting the virtues of climate compromise entitled "Finding Energy's Rational Middle."  Most would naturally assume the event's film and recommendations represented the product of the best scientific minds Harvard could bring to bear on the issues, except for the little-known fact that the event was sponsored by Shell Oil Company.

Who can argue with balance and rationality?  And with Harvard's stamp of approval, surely the information presented to students and the public would be credible and reliable.  Right?


The presented film's producer was Shell, yes Shell, the multinational oil company.  The film's director, another oil company executive.  And sitting on the event's panel, an Executive Vice President at Shell.  We won't discuss the reported $3.75 Million the Harvard Kennedy School has received from Shell.

Another figure in this propaganda show masquerading as science was Richard Newell, identified in the film shown as a Former Administrator at the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  Of course, cleverly omitted is Newell's Duke University "Energy Initiative" reportedly funded by a $4 Million grant from Ralph Eads III, Vice Chairman of Jefferies & Co., Inc. entrenched in the natural gas transmission and distribution industry.

The Article goes on to reveal other shills appearing in the presented film....

Michelle Michot Foss... is identified as the Chief Energy Economist at the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas at Austin.  What's not said is that the Energy Institute she founded at UT Austin is funded by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel interests including the Koch Foundation, or that she's a partner in a natural gas company.

Does this seem somewhat schizophrenic?  It is.  Of course, the truth of these connections between our academic institutions and global polluters is kept as secret as possible; else, somebody might start to question the motives of certain centers, institutes, groups, movements, committees, blogs and most importantly research, at our most prestigious universities and institutes.

To say that these experts and research centers have conflicts of interest is an understatement: many of them exist as they do only because of the fossil fuel industry.  They are industry projects with the appearance of neutrality and credibility given by academia.

After years conducting energy-related research at Harvard and MIT, we have come to discover firsthand that this pattern is systemic....

Down the street at MIT, the Institute's Energy Initiative is almost entirely funded by fossil fuel companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron.  MIT has taken $185 million from oil billionaire and climate denial financier David Koch, who is a Life Member of the [Institute's] Board.

The situation is reportedly no better at Stanford or Cal Berkeley.

The trend continues at Stanford.... The university's Global Climate and Energy Project is funded by ExxonMobil and Schlumberger.... It's current director also co-directs Stanford's Precort Institute for Energy, which is named after (and was co-founded by) the CEO of a natural gas company (now owned by Shell).  Across the bay, UC Berkeley's Energy Biosciences Institute is the product of a $500 million deal with BP - one that gives the company power over which research projects get funded and which don't.

Again, this infiltration and control is no accident.  It is the product of a massive campaign to frustrate any opposition to the continued reckless destruction of our natural environment in the quest for more corporate profits.

This norm is no accident: it is the product of a public relations strategy to neutralize science and target those whom ExxonMobil dubbed "Informed Influentials," and it comes straight out of Big Tabacco's playbook.

So, now comes the time to talk about the elephant in the room, with its rear belching a steady stream of emissions into the mix.

As scientists and policy experts rush to find solutions to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, our institutions are embroiled in a nationwide conflict of interest with the industry that has the most to lose.  Our message to universities is: stop ignoring it.

Yes, the first step must be to stop ignoring the fundamental problem with polluter-financed institutes, groups and research and to make efforts to expose this hypocrisy in our academic institutions.  Once science and academia are rid of polluters' undue influence, we can start to see projects and papers aimed at a legitimate goal.

The Article, The fossil fuel industry's invisible colonization of academia, can be found at the following link:



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Rick Shankman's picture

Christine, I suggest that

Christine, I suggest that there is a big difference between "market forces" (noun: "The economic factors affecting the price, demand, and availability of a commodity") and the unabashed corruption/subversion Dr. Marino complains of in modern university-based research. With regard to the conversation, I think this passage (from the Book's promotional webpage) illustrates my point (regarding the necessity to return academia to strict adherence to enlightenment ideals), and the magnitude of the problem, quite well:

"[T]he contribution of carbon dioxide to global warming [is one] of the most damaging continuing instances of corporate and government power to obscure legitimate scientific evidence — damaging to science and the ideals of free inquiry and scientific honesty, as well as to human safety....

[E]xperimental biophysicist and lawyer Andrew Marino recounts from personal experience the misuse and abuse of science by power companies, the US military, the National Academy of Sciences, federal agencies including the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, and scientists employed by these entities...".

Christine Callihoo's picture

Agree with Mark's assertion:

Agree with Mark's assertion: ' forces — in some form or another — have always been at work in the university.' At least to the limits of my awareness.
I recently had the pleasure of reading "Going Somewhere: Truth about a Life in Science", by Dr. Andrew A Marino. What a gut wrencher of a read from the perspective of deliberate participation in 'creating truth' (aka. mistruths, lies) on the part of our universities in partnership with government and corporations.
The implications for society, in our work to rapidly adopt low carbon resilience, are immense in light of the the corruption and collusion by all relevant parties.

Rick Shankman's picture

Hello Mark. I am truly glad

Hello Mark. I am truly glad that you have enjoyed the posts. With regard to your market forces question (my flaw in reasoning), I offer the following for your further consideration...

Universities in general, but especially research universities and institutes, absolutely need to be, and remain, "impervious" to corporate donor influence. This is essential to maintaining credibility, and ensuring objectivity in the research conducted and the conclusions reached. For peer reviewed papers, there is a reason the "declaration of competing interests" is required. The logic behind the declaration is to reveal conflicts of interest or influences in professional judgment that may exist because of a "secondary interest" in the research; such as the opportunity for personal/institutional financial gain or a competing rivalry with another researcher or institution. These declarations themselves are a compromise; as they should not be necessary at all, because institutions should not engage in conduct in the first place that would require the participants to provide such disclosures.

As you point out, there is currently the reality of an uncomfortable coexistence between "market forces" and enlightenment ideals in our academic centers. Please don't get me started on UChicago and its ANL "neoliberal" (limited liability corporation) marriage. There isn't enough room here for me to type that one out.

Basically, my point is that corporate (or other) donations/grants to academia are supposed to come with little or no strings attached; certainly none that would affect the credibility of research conducted with those funds. That means, no say in what is done with the money, who does it, or what they say about it afterwards. You might get your name on the building, but it ends there. Research committees deliberate what studies to fund and what not to. Those decisions are supposed to be made based upon global/societal needs and for scientific knowledge in its own right.

If universities and institutes want to earn a little extra cash by doing corporately-funded (internal - secret) evaluations and studies - essentially pimping-out the grad students and labs - then that's fine (well, not really, considering the dismal pay they give out); but don't even think about trying to publish it or slap the university's name on it.

Let's put the enlightenment ideals back in academia. If not in academia, where will such ideals safely exist?

Mark Brown's picture

Hi Rick. I’ve really enjoyed

Hi Rick. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts. The one flaw I see in your argument below is when you say that universities should remain somehow impervious to the rise of the modern corporation, based on an idealistic pursuit of truth and common good of humanity.

Isn’t it more historically accurate to say that market forces — in some form or another — have always been at work in the university. This has become far more pronounced with the rise of the UChicago neoliberal experiment begun with Thatcher/Reagan, but I think its inconsistent with history to say that universities could somehow remain immune to capital based on a duty to enlightenment ideals.

The “production of scientific truth” (Bruno Latour) that happens in the labs of research universities is a very complex process from start to finish. It's often socially constructed and based on the kind of “hot reasoning” or “motivated thinking” that we do as individuals and organizations all the time.

That doesn’t let anyone off the hook. I’m just saying that universities are no more or less part of the fabric of the enormous problem we’re facing. The fact that MIT produces scientific truth just means they have as much power to clarify as obscure.

I think the Supran / Franta article is excellent and speaks for itself. I also think that there are technology solutions incubating at MIT right now that can help us frontally address the big problems, and I have also met a pretty impressive cadre of MIT students who seem totally and completely committed to following them.

These are opposing ideas, but I think they coexist at many universities today.

Rick Shankman's picture

Rajesh, I'm not sure you are

Rajesh, I'm not sure you are fully grasping the magnitude of the problem this situation presents.

This is not a "funding" problem. These polluters are CONTROLLING the research that is funded. There is no benefit in receiving money to conduct useless research that is ultimately aimed at continuing (hence, worsening) the problem, or advancing an anti-science agenda. These companies don't fund research aimed at destroying their own huge infrastructure, geopolitical influence, or profit streams. I don't care what label they stick on the door or on the study. Considering the realities of the situation, there is no budget "shortfall" to speak of. MIT is awash with useless money.

It wasn't enough to fund the gutting of democracies; now, it's an attack on academia as well.

You comment speaks of the corporatization of universities ("as anyone else") as if to suggest that our academic institutions and more importantly, our dedicated science and research institutes, are nothing more than common business enterprises; merely governed by the rules of greed and charged with the simpleminded duty to accumulate as much money (from whomever and wherever) as possible. This is not the case.

Universities, and especially dedicated research universities and institutes, owe their allegiance to objective science for the common good of humanity. This duty transcends national borders, politics, religious beliefs, economics, and self-interest; else, the objectivity of their research will always be suspect and tainted. This makes the administration's arguments against divestment regarding "shareholder responsibility" and MIT's long history of helping to nurture the "Western economy" even more offensive and misguided.

How can you begin your comment with "oil isn't tobacco yet," when it's quite obvious that Big Oil has gone way beyond the conduct of Big Tobacco? The Koch situation at MIT aside, where is this polluter influence institutional transparency at MIT? FFMIT revelations don't count as transparency.

Your comment talks about your witnessing the "reframing" of issues. Be wary of the reframing of the issue of an outright effort to subvert the totality of academia, as an accounting dilemma for university budget committees.

Rajesh Kasturirangan's picture

I am not so sure about the

I am not so sure about the invisibility - oil is not tobacco yet. Several centers at MIT and elsewhere are quite open about their funding from Exxon/Shell etc and as a result some of the strongest voices against divestment are from powerful (since they have lots of fossil fuel money!) faculty at those universities. I have often heard this being reframed as a dilemma: should university X accept money from oil company Y for renewable energy research? Fossil fuel companies love to greenwash and the pressure to accept that funding is high. Plus dedicated renewable energy companies aren't big enough to make up for the shortfall.

What I am trying to say in a long winded way is that universities will have to accept that they could suffer financially if they vote their conscience. Of course, one would think that institutions that claim to be in the public interest would have no problem taking that hit. The converse being that universities are as corporatized as anyone else. Guess which one's the truth.