Harvard received at least $20 million from major fossil fuel companies from 2010 to 2020, according to a new report by Data for Progress in collaboration with Fossil Free Research, a campaign advocating against the financial influence of fossil fuel companies in climate research.
In the report, think tank and polling firm Data for Progress evaluated the contributions of fossil fuel companies ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and Koch Industries to 27 universities across the U.S., including Harvard, between 2010 and 2020.
“Harvard is huge, right? Harvard is the university everyone looks up to, and the fact that Harvard takes $20 million-plus of fossil fuel money is super dangerous for climate research,” said Isabella K. Kumar, lead author of the Data for Progress report.
Additionally, the report analyzed responses to both a nationwide survey and a university-based poll on fossil fuel-funded research. One of the questions in the survey claimed that several universities, including Harvard, “have used donations from the fossil fuel industry to fund climate and environmental research.”
“Knowing what you know, do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of the following institutions?” the survey then asked, listing universities including Harvard.
The report showed that Harvard’s favorability rating dropped by 14 points — from 61 to 47 percent — when the survey presented respondents with the claim that Harvard has used fossil fuel donations to fund climate research.
“What this shows is that Harvard loses credibility, and it undermines itself — it loses the public’s trust when it takes this kind of funding,” said Phoebe G. Barr ’23-’24, a researcher for the report and an organizer for Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the report.
According to the website of Harvard’s Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, the institute “will not accept funds from, or partner with, any company that does not share the goal of moving our global economy away from fossil fuels.”
On Jan. 18, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard Alumni released a similar report demanding that the University reject funding from companies tied to the fossil fuel industry. The report claimed that climate and environmental policy programs at Harvard have financial connections to Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell.
Kumar said that — though she does not know for certain whether donations by fossil fuel companies go to climate research due to lack of information about donations to universities — she “would assume, and I think the general consensus is, that it is largely going to research funding.”
Grace E. Adcox, a Data for Progress polling analyst, said the research group ran into issues during data collection due to a “complete lack of transparency” from universities about what they fund with donations from fossil fuel companies.
“So it’s actually quite difficult to ascertain where fossil fuel money is going within universities,” Adcox said.
Co-Executive Director of Fossil Free Research Jake E. Lowe said the numbers they found on fossil fuel funding were only a “lower bound.”
“What’s really important about this report is that this figure we’ve come up with is most certainly just a fraction of the total. It’s a lower end of what’s likely a much bigger number, because it’s just what’s publicly available,” he said.
One of the report’s two major policy recommendations calls for more transparency from universities around funding. The report’s other major policy recommendation calls for stronger policies around research conflicts of interest and gifts.
“There’s just an inherent bias to appease a funder when they’re funding the research for all kinds of fields, particularly if you want more funding down the line,” Lowe said. “And then when that research that favors industry goes on to inform climate policy, we think that’s a big issue, because it’s super clear that the fossil fuel industry is not interested in taking climate change seriously.”
Kumar said she hopes that this report can serve as a launching point for the Fossil Free Research campaign.
“I know Harvard already has a super strong divestment campaign, as well as a new fossil fuel money campaign,” Kumar said. “I hope that you guys use this and take this as an additional aspect of credibility for those campaigns to say that there is a report that states that this is actually happening, and that you’re not just making this up.”
Correction: April 15, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced Phoebe G. Barr ’23-’24 as a Crimson Editorial editor. In fact, Barr contributed a 2022 op-ed to The Crimson but is not a member of the Editorial Board.
—Staff writer Jeffrey Q. Yang contributed reporting.