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Stanford oil and gas research funding ban still under review

Environmental policy expert says fossil fuels have been net benefit for society

Stanford University continues to consider a ban on oil and gas funded research more than a year after creating the committee following activist pressure.

Stanford University has yet to publicize any of its findings and the committee’s progress remains largely unclear.

The dean of Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability stated in a recent letter to the university community that through the work of the committee, progress had been made towards “engaging with fossil fuel companies.”

Paul Brest, former dean of Stanford Law School and committee co-chair, told The College Fix that the committee’s work is still in progress.

“[The review is] still underway,” Brest said. “We’re planning for a meeting at the Doerr School in the winter quarter where we can get more input.”

Brest confirmed to The Fix that the committee has not made any recommendations to the university in the year since it was established.

He also told The Fix that the committee was not only investigating funding from the fossil fuel industry but from other sectors as well. However, when The Fix followed up with Brest, he did not mention any other industries specifically the committee was reviewing funding from.

“The Coalition’s petition focuses on fossil fuel industries in general,” Brest said. “We have not looked at any particular companies, but rather are trying to understand the structure and processes of the industrial affiliates programs of which such companies are affiliates,” Brest said.

Within the past two weeks, The Fix also contacted a university spokesperson and the dean of the School of Sustainability, both of whom did not answer an original inquiry into the committee a year ago, to ask what updates they could share on the status of the committee’s work.

For the second time, no university officials involved with the committee apart from Brest responded to multiple requests for comment.

An environmental policy expert told The Fix that fossil fuels are essential and that Stanford shouldn’t be targeting research funding coming from that industry.

“The fossil fuel industry is vital and it is not the sole thing, but in large part why we have all the progress we’ve made today,” The Heartland Institute’s Center on Climate and Environmental Policy Director Sterling Burnett told The Fix in a phone interview.

“It’s why lifespans are longer, why food production is up, why medical devices keep us alive and why infrastructures are better than ever before,” Burnett said.

“Stanford’s a private university that can do what it wants but it’s hypocritical to assume that and false to assume that just because money comes from the fossil fuel industry, the research is tainted,” Burnett said. “Quite often researchers in the fossil fuel industry know more about what’s going on than outsiders and they provide a lot of the information.”

He also questioned why the committee appears to be investigating fossil fuel-funded research but not funding from other industries.

“So why are they singling out the fossil fuel industry, that’s already suspicious, right?” Burnett said. “That’s due to the fact that they are convinced that greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry are causing dangerous climate change. That’s not a fact, that’s a supposition and a theory.”

“There [are] no clean hands when it comes to research dollars. So why be suspicious of fossil fuels versus wind or solar, or chemicals or any other industry,” Burnett said.

Several free speech groups quiet about proposal to bar some research funding

Prominent free speech groups that typically advocate for academic freedom on college campuses have been reluctant to state their positions on efforts to ban research funding received from oil and gas industries, as previously reported by The College Fix.

One group, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, initially told The Fix that it could not comment on Stanford’s formation of the committee because it was outside of the scope of their organization’s mission.

The group reversed its position earlier this year stating that it opposed efforts to prohibit industry-funded research.

“Faculty should have full freedom in their teaching and research,” FIRE Director of Campus Rights Advocacy Alex Morey told The Fix in April 2023. “Bans on research funding can inhibit research itself and make it less likely academics will engage with those topics. Whether professors want to study DEI or oil and gas, university administrators must not interfere with those choices.”

The Fix reached out to FIRE again to ask what led to the decision to depart from its previous position and why it thought academic freedom groups were so hesitant to take a stance on this issue.

A spokesperson for FIRE responded to the inquiry stating that the group had nothing to add apart from its April statement.

Several other free speech groups still remain largely silent on the issue including PEN America and the Academic Freedom Alliance. Neither of these groups responded when contacted to ask their opinion on the Stanford’s investigation and why they have been reluctant to address the issue.

Academic Freedom Alliance founding member Cornel West has signed a petition calling for universities to bar research funding from fossil fuel companies.

PEN America previously told The Fix it was “continuing to evaluate this issue.”

The group previously defended a Wayne State University professor who wrote on Facebook that it would be better to kill right-wing “transphobes” than to just “shout them down.”

The Academic Freedom Alliance told The Fix in April 2023 it did “not have a position to share on this topic at this time.”

The American Association of University Professors previously told The Fix the group prefers disclosure of funding, rather than bans. Spokesman Kelly Benjamin pointed The Fix in April 2023 to a “recommended principles” document. The faculty union has also opposed efforts to bar funding from tobacco companies.

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About the Author
Jack Applewhite -- University of Georgia