From the Community | Doerr’s fossil fuel ties discourage top scholars from engaging

Nov. 17, 2022, 9:56 p.m.

Earlier this month, Stanford inaugurated the Doerr School of Sustainability, its first new school in over 70 years. Bestowed with $1.7 billion in founding donations, the school has begun hiring over 60 new faculty and will include a sustainability accelerator to scale new climate solutions. Unfortunately, the Doerr School leadership has already begun to squander its potential by continuing to accept money from fossil fuel companies. The costs of these decisions are not to be taken lightly.

This July, the Stanford Woods Institute and the student group Scientists Speak Up offered to host Professor Naomi Oreskes for a full day of events marking the launch of the Doerr School. A Stanford alumna, Oreskes is the recipient of the 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award, Stanford Earth’s highest alumni honor. Her book Merchants of Doubt and her work exposing climate disinformation have changed the conversation around climate change. This was a highly-anticipated event to highlight her work throughout the wider community, simultaneously raising the Doerr School’s profile.

But Professor Oreskes rejected the invitation. Instead, she will be giving a student-organized talk on why she declined this speaking invitation from her alma mater.

In an email declining her invitation to speak at the Doerr School, which one of the authors of this article received, Oreskes cited her research on how funding shapes “not only the research agenda, but even how we conceptualize the natural world that we study.” She doesn’t “feel comfortable participating in activities marking the launch of the new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability” because the school accepts fossil fuel money. Oreskes continued, “I think the evidence is clear, and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t stand by the evidence.”

Oreskes is not alone in her reservations. We have argued in our previous op-eds that fossil fuel funding damages the academic integrity of the Doerr School and delays climate action. Over 800 Stanford affiliates, including Oreskes, signed a letter in May calling on the Doerr School of Sustainability to “decline funding from fossil fuel companies.”

The Doerr School of Sustainability is being crafted by a series of decisions. Leaders of the Doerr School chose to accept fossil fuel money, which in turn led Professor Oreskes to decline a speaker invitation. Doerr School leaders then decided to invite a professor of petroleum engineering to be the first quarterly alumni speaker at the school’s department of Energy Science and Engineering. This is a demoralizing way for the new school to reveal its values. Happily, students also have decision-making power. Coinciding with the Doerr School-sponsored petroleum engineering talk, Scientists Speak Up and the Stanford Coalition for a True School of Sustainability will be hosting a talk by Professor Oreskes.

Now the decision is yours. At noon on Nov. 18th, you can attend a talk hosted by the Doerr School about fossil fuel extraction. Or, you can attend a talk organized by students without university support, given by an internationally-regarded historian of science. There, you would learn about how the fossil industry uses universities like Stanford to greenwash their business and undercut climate action, and how we can fight for a vibrant and livable future for everyone. We hope you will join us. You can sign up here.

Yannai Kashtan is a Ph.D. student researching the health and climate impacts of fossil fuels in the home and is an organizer for the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability.

Mallory Harris is a Ph.D. candidate researching the effects of human activity, including climate change, on infectious disease and is the President of Scientists Speak Up and an organizer for the Coalition for True School of Sustainability.

Contact: Mallory Harris (404) 660-6474, [email protected].

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