Letter: Fossil fuel-funded research compromises climate action. It’s time for UBC to reject it

After decades of student pressure, dozens of universities across the continent have pledged to take portions of their investment funds out of fossil fuels. 

As of 2019, UBC is one of them.

But as universities congratulate themselves on their divestment plans, they’re hiding something critical. 

Every year, oil and gas companies pour billions of dollars into university research — and often it comes with strings attached. 

A student-led investigation found significant UBC research is funded by fossil fuel companies — most prevalently in Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS). 

Since 2011, 509 papers published by UBC researchers have acknowledged fossil-fuel industry funding. The fossil fuel industry has funded at least $18 million dollars of research since 1999 — and that’s an underestimate, because UBC does not collect or publicize centralized data about the specific composition of industry research partnerships.

We are concerned UBC continues to collaborate with fossil fuel funders in spite of its stated commitments to climate justice

Fossil fuel companies funding climate research is dangerous

Students and staff from Princeton, Cambridge, Harvard and other schools are demanding universities not only divest their endowments, but cut ties with fossil fuel corporations entirely — including rejecting research funding and donations. 

It’s time for UBC to do the same.

By donating to universities, fossil fuel companies get a public image boost and influence over the research their money funds. At this crucial juncture in addressing the climate crisis, Canadian universities collaborating with fossil fuel companies for research compromises our future. 

Some fossil fuel-funded research at UBC helps directly facilitate gas extraction; one example is a Shell and Chevron-funded research project which developed new remote sensing technology for oil in the Gulf of Mexico from 2005–2017. 

Other fossil fuel-funded projects seem more environmentally-friendly. A large 2019–2021 oil-funded UBC research grant studied how to abandon gas wells — important research for a safe transition away from fossil fuel infrastructure. 

However, the project’s research donor Petroleum Tech Alliance — a large fossil fuel lobbyist group — boasts the explicit goal to “provide [their] industry with the social license to operate.” In a word, their mission is explicitly to make the fossil fuel industry look good. Meanwhile, Petroleum Tech Alliance’s partners continue to dig new oil wells and build new pipelines. 

Donating to environmental research makes it seem like Big Oil is doing their part to fix the problem they created — a lie that universities validate when their researchers end up relying on their money.

Scientific research provides a roadmap to navigating the climate crisis. It helps us understand its scope and nuances, and outline which solutions could be most feasible — solutions which could save millions of lives. We cannot afford to allow fossil fuel money to skew understanding of what post-fossil fuel environmental futures are possible and how to get there. 

First, UBC departments, including EOAS, should conduct an internal review of their funding sources and partnerships and make this information publicly available. 

This follows precedents like the University of California’s policies around the tobacco industry — just as cigarette manufacturers shouldn’t be funding cancer research, fossil fuel producers shouldn’t be funding research into climate change. 

EOAS students have released an open letter with recommendations to bring EOAS’ actions in line with its stated values. That includes incorporating climate justice and Indigenous perspectives into curricula. It also includes making sure that fossil fuels aren’t using UBC environmental research to prop up their societal power. 

The fossil fuel-free research movement is growing

As student pressure continues to build, more attention is being brought to the issue of fossil fuel-funded research. Some universities are moving towards rejecting these partnerships and creating sustainable alternatives in both research and curricula. 

Last year, Princeton University voted to cut all ties, including research partnerships, with the fossil fuel industry. 

More recently, a multi-university study co-authored by Data for Progress and the Fossil Free Research coalition uncovered that a number of prominent American universities – including Harvard, Stanford and MIT – have received $700 million from Big Oil within a mere decade. Organizers have leveraged this information to fight for greater institutional accountability. 

The point isn’t to shame individuals. Money is tight and one of the principles of a just transition is to support abundant futures where workers — including publicly-funded researchers — can thrive and contribute to a post-fossil fuel society.

Princeton is creating a fossil fuel-free research fund, called the Energy Research Fund to replace lost fossil fuel financial support, and with support from the provincial and federal governments, UBC could adopt a similar approach. 

A just transition away from fossil fuel university funding is not only possible, but necessary. Fossil fuel companies are the architects of the climate crisis, and it's time that we stop letting them buy influence, prestige and legitimacy.

Tova Gaster is a third-year environmental geography and history student and a Ubyssey editor. Their opinion does not reflect the opinions of the Ubyssey editorial board or The Ubyssey as a whole.

Michelle Xie is a third-year sociology student and community organizer who was born and raised on the ancestral and unceded homelands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people. Xie is a coordinator with Climate Justice UBC, facilitator with The Climate Justice Organizing HUB and the Climate Resilient Communities Lead for the UBC Sustainability Ambassadors Program.

This is an opinion letter. It does not reflect the opinions of The Ubyssey as a whole. You can submit an opinion at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.