Is fossil fuel money compromising university research?

Tuesday 28-06-2016 - 16:44

Fossil fuel companies pay our universities to produce research that enables their destructive practices. Students at the University of Sheffield want to break this financial influence.

Hundreds of students across the UK are calling for their institution to pull their money out of fossil fuels and invest it in renewable alternatives. 

But some are going even further. Some want to make sure that fossil fuel companies don't have financial influence over a university's research either. 

Last week, divestment campaigners at the University of Sheffield handed in a letter to university calling on them to break these financial ties, following their commitment to divestment last November. 

We spoke to one of the campaigners Chris Saltmarsh about why our universities should be refusing to take fossil fuel money for research.

Tell me about the letter you just gave the university

We've started a new Fossil Free campaign here at the University of Sheffield, and after a few months of gathering support from students, we have informed university management of our demands.

Very simply, we're calling on the university to stop accepting any funding from the top 200 fossil fuel companies - the same ones they divested from in November - for any research and innovation. We think that any existing projects funded by the fossil fuel industry can continue until the funding runs out, but after that nothing should be renewed or sought after that relies on the industry.

We are lucky to have a relatively progressive-thinking university management, and we want to work with them through dialogue and negotiation to create a truly Fossil Free University, hence this letter! But this is just the beginning of the campaign, and by no means the extent of our capacity for action.

What’s wrong with fossil fuel companies funding research?

If its wrong to wreck the climate and profit from it, it should also be wrong to produce knowledge for its wreckers to do just that.

Fossil free research at Sheffield alone won't cut off their supply of knowledge necessary to extract and profit from fossil fuels. However, we believe that, like divestment, this is a really effective tactic in the global movement to strip the fossil fuel industry of its political power and influence, and its social license to profit from the climate crisis it is creating. 

Universities are large public institutions with big reputations. By associating with the destructive fossil fuel industry, through investments or research, the University lends the industry some of its social legitimacy. By refusing to do research for it, the university can seriously dent the perceived legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry, affecting its ability to operate efficiently and profitably.

But what about the opportunities this money can provide for students?

We absolutely recognise that many students, as well as staff, currently rely on this kind of funding for their studies or their livelihoods. That's why we want the university to honour any existing projects funded by the industry until the funding ends, giving staff and students plenty of time to adjust.

What we also recognise, though, is that academics often have to reinvent themselves several times throughout their careers, and many do with great success. We're not asking for these researchers to be out of a job, but to use their knowledge and skills for good, not for the profit of the fossil fuel industry.

Furthermore, fossil-funded research reproduces historic colonial violence by enabling corporations in the Global North to profit from the exploitation and ecological devastation of the Global South. Is this the kind of research we want our universities and their researchers engaged in anyway?

What’s your vision for the research universities should be generating?

Our universities should really be at the forefront of innovation that can help us create a more just, equal and ecologically responsible society.

They should be working on how our economy can transition from one dependent on carbon emissions, to being 100% renewable. This would obviously involve research into enhancing renewable energy sources, but also ways of storing and distributing that energy equitably through adequate infrastructure.

It should also involve thinking and innovating with ambition so that we can realise dreams of an economy that is fully automated, with minimal working weeks for all, that still respects humanity's position within our natural environment while repairing and healing the historic and present colonial injustices driven by the Global North through Empire, and now through climate change.

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