Fossil fuels fund Doerr School of Sustainability research, data shows

Jan. 29, 2024, 2:35 a.m.

Between 2011 and 2023, fossil fuel companies contributed over $68 million — about one dollar for every five dollars of total funding — to sponsored research in departments housed in the Doerr School of Sustainability, according to data retrieved on Jan. 11 from the Stanford electronic Research Administration System (SeRA), the University-mandated system to disclose funding for sponsored research projects.

Across all fossil fuel company contributions, Big Oil companies — the top six publicly traded oil and gas corporations globally: ExxonMobil, Shell, TotalEnergies, BP, Chevron and Eni — accounted for more than $48 million.

Research funding can come from several sources including federal and state governments, corporations, nonprofits and institutional funds.

Yannai Kashtan, a fourth-year earth systems Ph.D. student and organizer with the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability, criticized the dependence on fossil fuel funding. It is “certainly an eminently solvable problem” for the University, whose endowment numbers in the billions, Kashtan said.

According to them, “it seems like a very small price to pay” compared to the downsides.

By accepting fossil fuel funding, Kashtan said the University accepted branding and research integrity risks.

“These companies … have continued to sow disinformation and stall climate change positive branding,” Kashtan said.

Doerr spokesperson Amy Adams wrote that decisions made about accepting funding “are made by the University, not at the school level.”

The federal government provides the most external research funding across the University. For 2021-2022, about 78% of all externally funded projects were sponsored by federal government agencies, like the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Doerr School of Sustainability, which officially launched on Sept. 1, 2022, has faced criticism from Stanford community members for its continued acceptance of funding for research from fossil fuel companies.

From 2011-2023, about $380 million was allocated for sponsored research projects in departments now housed in Doerr. Fossil fuel industry contributions accounted for about 17.9%, or about one of every five dollars funded.

While research activities began before this period, these figures are based on research projects in the current system of record, which went live in 2011. According to Tim Leung, the director of client advocacy and education at the Office of Research Administration, in legacy systems used prior, a project’s financial records were removed after a period of time — typically five years — after the submission of a final financial report, so data before then is incomplete.

Some of the top fossil fuel company contributors included TotalEnergies, which contributed about $20 million, ExxonMobil with about $12 million and Aramco with over $9 million in contributions to sponsored research projects.

Besides sponsoring specific research projects, companies also support institutional research activities through Industrial Affiliates Programs. A company becomes an industrial affiliate by paying a membership fee, which is treated as unrestricted income for research or administrative costs.

While research relationships through these programs are typically less structured, companies may receive other benefits depending on the membership tier, like access to research results, invitations to Stanford research symposia and workshops and roles on governance boards that help establish research priorities.

Earth and planetary sciences professor Jef Caers directs Mineral-X, an affiliate program that refuses fossil fuel funding. “I’m all for collaborating with the industry, and I’m all for the kinds of partnerships that we do in the Industrial Affiliate Programs,” Caers said.

But when it came to fossil fuel companies, he said he decided to step away from fossil fuel funding due to moral concerns.

“This idea of academic freedom has to come with some kind of responsibility and morality. That morality is not of an individual. It’s of a community of which you’re a part of,” Caers said.

Data recently released by Doerr for fiscal year 2022 showed that only one affiliate program out of 14 did not receive support from a fossil fuel company. (This data excludes Mineral-X, which was not founded until 2023.)

The other 13, like the Natural Gas Initiative, received support from fossil fuel companies. A consortium of more than 40 Stanford research groups working “to generate the knowledge needed to use natural gas to its greatest social, economic and environmental benefit,” the Natural Gas Initiative’s affiliates include top oil companies like ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips.

SUPRI-Tides, an affiliate program that studies tidal behavior to understand the earth’s physical properties, was the only Doerr School affiliate program in 2022 with no fossil fuel companies providing funding.

During fiscal year 2022, affiliate programs across the Doerr School received about $9.7 million in funding. About $5.5 million — more than 55% — came from fossil fuel companies, with many companies contributing to multiple affiliate programs. Chevron, for instance, was a member in 10 affiliate programs, contributing $695,000 in fiscal year 2022 alone.

Not included in this data were gifts — donated to support University research activities but handled separately from affiliate programs and sponsored research projects involving grants and contracts.

In an open letter, Doerr Dean Arun Majumdar committed to ensuring the compliance of Industry Affiliates Programs with University guidelines. Majumdar published the letter in October, in response to a piece by six graduate researchers about adopting standards for research funding accepted by affiliates programs.

He emphasized the core institutional value of academic freedom, which Majumdar wrote “allows faculty to pursue research they feel is worthy of their scholarship and engage with organizations that they deem worthwhile.”

Doerr recently made financial information for affiliate programs and associated research projects available online. Adams wrote that they will “continue to update our website throughout this year, and then yearly, to increase transparency and provide the most current information.”

A University Committee on Funding for Energy Research and Education (CFERE) formed in December 2022. CFERE has been charged with evaluating research funding from fossil fuel companies, although its report is yet to be released.

A previous version of this article misstated the percentage of Doerr research funding provided by fossil fuel companies as 21.4% instead of 17.9%. The Daily regrets this error.

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