UGS debates fossil fuel companies funding research

May 24, 2024, 1:31 a.m.

The newly elected 26th Undergraduate Senate (UGS) heard from Graduate Student Council members Perry Nielsen M.S. ’24 and second year Ph.D. in Earth System Science June Choi about a joint resolution that would offer objective criteria about when the University should accept fossil fuel funding for industry-related Stanford faculty research. 

Nielsen said that the bill was inspired by a recent joint staff report released by a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers. According to Nielsen, the report identifies several fossil fuel companies that strategically sponsor university research programs in order to “green-wash” themselves by engaging with academic institutions known for sustainability research.

Researchers are expected to use these funds to support projects and outcomes that align with the agendas of these fossil fuel companies, according to the bill. 

“We wanted to write a bill that actually sanctions these companies and gives a little bit of accountability to companies that want to use the Stanford brand name to make themselves look better,” Nielsen said. “They actually have to follow through and make sure that they’re funding truly innovative, truly sustainable research here at Stanford.” 

Choi acknowledged several challenges the bill may face, including the University’s concern for the potential conflict between academic freedom and sanctions on fossil fuel-funded research. According to Choi, the University has previously failed to take accountability for the funding it receives from fossil fuel companies. She referenced several May 2022 student-led protests that took place during the opening ceremony of the Doerr School of Sustainability, which she said the University did not comment on. 

Despite potential concern from the University, Choi said, an academic institution like Stanford should not look to hinder progress on climate policy but rather be a leader in setting standards. 

“Many other universities, mostly in Europe, have already made a decision,” Choi said. “We think that students can help add the pressure for the administration to have office while the Committee continues its deliberations.”

Senator Mandla Msipa ’26 asked Nielsen and Choi about the Faculty Senate’s response to the potential objections against the bill.  

According to Choi, although the bill has not yet been raised in the Faculty Senate meeting, several faculty have asked about the criteria outlined in the bill, including some directors of the targeted industry-affiliated research programs. If the bill passes both the UGS and GSC, it will be brought upon to the Faculty Senate for further debate. 

“I think overwhelmingly from the faculty side, [they] support [having] criteria as long as this boundary of this is not harming academic freedom is clear,” Choi said. 

The bill would also create an oversight body to evaluate and decide on which fossil fuel companies to continue academic ties with. UGS senator David Sengthay ’26 questioned how the members of the oversight body would be selected, which he said was an especially important issue given that the committee could be involved in broader decision-making about a potential fossil fuel divestment process. 

According to Nielsen, the committee selected to review these sustainability issues will decide on the members of the oversight body. The creation of the committee would likely follow a preexisting set of Faculty Senate guidelines, and would require both faculty and student representation.

As the Tuesday meeting was the first for the 26th Undergraduate Senate, both new and re-elected members alike voiced goals for the coming school year. 

New Senators Jadon Urogdy ’27 and Celeste Vargas ’27 both emphasized a plan to advocate for Title IX-related policy reforms and goals in improving transportation, particularly for 5-SURE and DisGo. Sengthay also mentioned his aim of ensuring that every undergraduate student finds their own “clique” in the community, while advocating for FLI students. 

The UGS also unanimously passed a bill to confirm Dante Danelian ’24, M.S. ’25 to the Constitutional Council, which is tasked with monitoring ASSU actions. 

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