Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times

April 27, 2022

Cornell Professors Call for ‘Fossil Free’ Research Funding

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Eight Cornell faculty members signed a letter condemning the corrupt influence of fossil fuel funding used to support climate change research in universities. Released on Mar. 21, the letter is supported by many more members of the faculty. 

Titled “Fossil Free Research,” the letter, which is addressed to university presidents and vice-chancellors, calls upon U.S. and U.K. academic institutions to establish a ban on accepting fossil fuel industry funding for climate-related research.

According to the letter, fossil fuel funding inherently comprises the integrity of the academic research being conducted. 

“There is perceived pressure to not say unfavorable things,” said Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, who is one of the signees. “Fossil fuel companies have been exceedingly deceptive in their advertising, claiming that they have been working to go more green, and it’s basically just been a lie.”

The letter draws upon comparisons between the fossil fuel industry and the tobacco industry, which has been known to grant large sums of money towards public health research and consequently spread misinformation about the consequences of its products.

Prof. Bob Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, co-writer of the Fossil Free Research campaign, has seen the fossil fuel industry’s “invisible colonization of academia” upfront. “I’ve seen how [the industry] has tried to influence academic institutions up close and personal for a long time,” Howarth said. 

However, the letter explicitly states that it is not pointing fingers at individual scholars. “[W]e aren’t casting doubt on the integrity of scientists, but we think the system is broken,” said Prof. Caroline Levine, literature. “If there’s too much money coming in, it gives an incentive to scientists to skew their research.”

Howarth and Stanford Prof. Mark Jacobson, civil and environmental engineering, co-authored a paper in August titled, “How Green is Blue Hydrogen,” detailing evidence of why making hydrogen out of natural gas with carbon capture would be detrimental to the environment. “A group of scientists [tightly tied to the oil and gas industry] submitted a comment on our paper criticizing us basically,” Howarth said. “They just say that, although they have connections to the fossil fuel industry, it doesn’t affect their judgment, but it does. It’s a corrupting influence.”

According to Howarth, another issue with fossil fuel funding in academia is that research findings that are critical of oil and gas interests are often kept under wraps. “Even if you’ve done quality research, if that isn’t what they want to hear, it gets squashed,” Howarth said. “It is something very commonly done in the area.”

Students at leading universities across America, ranging from Stanford to MIT, have begun to file legal complaints against their institutions in an effort to push for fossil fuel divestment.

Similar efforts occurred at Cornell, when the University divested its fossil fuel endowments just two years ago in May 2020 after years of backlash from both faculty and students. 

Engineering student David Beavers ’14 spent the majority of his undergraduate career lobbying for Cornell to rid itself of its investments in the fossil fuel industry. “[It] used to feel very hypocritical to me that an organization like Cornell, that was at the very cutting edge of climate change research was also still investing in fossil fuels, which are primarily responsible for climate change,” Beavers said.

According to Levine, the divestment resolution passed unanimously in all five of Cornell’s assemblies: the student assembly, the graduate and professional student assembly, the employee assembly, the university assembly and the faculty senate, before it went to the Board of Trustees. 

“It was a very exciting moment [when Cornell divested],” said Levine, who was actively involved in the fossil fuel divestment process. “It was truly an example of students, faculty and staff really working together and succeeding in achieving a common goal.” 

Moving forward, supporters of Fossil Free Research have urged for more transparency — finding that the lack of, is very problematic, according to Howarth. 

“The main value of suspending university research funded by fossil fuel companies is to set an example [and] make a public statement to hopefully influence public opinion,” Shalloway said. “We have a responsibility as Cornell, particularly that we’re part state university. We work for research and its education, but also work for the welfare of the people of New York state and the country in the world. This is a way we can do that.”