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Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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PAUL closes in Western Market
By Ella Mitchell, Staff Writer • April 22, 2024

GW received at least $4.4 million for research from fossil fuel industry in last decade: report

Rachel Schwartz | Assistant Photo Editor
GW landed in the report’s No. 20 spot out of the 27 selected institutions in terms of total research donations.

Updated: March 27, 2023 at 3:02 p.m.

Fossil fuel-related organizations like the Charles Koch Foundation and ExxonMobil have donated more than $4.4 million to GW for research since 2010, according to a report from a pair of progressive research organizations earlier this month.

The report authored by Sophomore Bella Kumar, an affiliate researcher on the report for Data for Progress and a member of Sunrise GW  compiled public tax forms revealing fossil fuel companies’ donations to 27 higher education institutions across the country from 2010 to 2020. GW received more than $3.1 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, $1.3 million from ExxonMobil and $4,900 from Shell Oil Company during that span of time, according to the report.

The $4.4 million over the course of a decade accounts for a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding that GW receives for research each year. Federal research expenditures on GW research have exceeded $150 million each year from fiscal years 2018 to 2022, according to a report at a Faculty Senate meeting in February. The National Institute of Health granted GW researchers about $80 million in FY 2022, according to their website.

Experts said funding sources should not affect research because of conflict-of-interest standards and methodology disclosures, which University policy requires.

GW landed in the report’s No. 20 spot out of the 27 selected institutions in terms of total research donations. None of GW’s peer schools were listed in the report. The report authors tracked donation numbers from organizations like BP, Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil, the Koch Foundations and ConocoPhillips.

The University of California, Berkeley received the most funding out of the 27 universities in the report with more than $154 million from BP, Chevron, Shell, Exxon, ConocoPhillips and the Koch Foundations. GW’s pool of research funds from the fossil fuel industry falls between Brown University, which received more than $4.2 million and the Colorado School of Mines, which received more than $4.6 million.

“Climate activists, allies, academics and universities can cut the dangerous tie between academia and the fossil fuel industry via policies that crack down on fossil fuel funding,” the report’s website states.

University spokesperson Julia Metjian said GW’s research enterprise receives “hundreds of millions” of dollars each year from foundations, federal agencies and industries annually to support “high-quality” research projects.

She said the University has “high standards,” policies and practices when accepting funding and conducting research. Metjian said the University regularly reviews its policies and practices to support transparency during research.

She declined to say if GW is still receiving money from ExxonMobil or the Koch Foundations.

“Many GW scholars are addressing the climate crisis through teaching, research and institute work,” Metjian said in an email. “All GW scholars have academic freedom in conducting their research.”

Kumar, an affiliate researcher on the report for Data for Progress and a member of Sunrise GW, said two other students in Sunrise, and four student researchers from other institutions collected fossil fuel-related data from annual Form 990s from 2010 through 2020, which the federal government requires all tax-exempt organizations, like nonprofits, to make public.

She said the report’s findings give credibility to the No Fossil Fuel Money Movement, which Sunrise GW launched in November 2021, calling on the University to stop accepting research funding from fossil fuel companies.

“We’ve been fighting this fight for a year and a half now and to very little response on behalf of the University,” Kumar said. “And so, if this report does anything, I would love it to incite a response from the University.”

Grace Adcox, a Data for Progress polling analyst, said the researchers used public data from IRS Form 990s, reports from fossil fuel foundation reports, “school databases” and news articles to dig up fossil fuel contributions to universities.

“Our figure estimates the minimum amount of fossil fuel funding to these institutions – the true number is likely higher but is impossible to know without full transparency from colleges and universities themselves,” Adcox said in an email.

Jake Lowe, an alumnus who graduated in December 2022 and works as the director of Fossil Free Research, said the report provides an easily accessible location for people interested in fossil fuel funding numbers to view the data without digging through tax forms.

“On the one hand, if you’re not ashamed to take fossil-fuel money, you should show it to us,” Lowe said. “And on the other hand, if you want to argue that the fossil fuel money is an insignificant amount of funding for the University’s argument, why do you need to accept it?”

Experts in finance and environmental policy said researchers must work independently from their funding sources when conducting studies, but universities should not reject donations from fossil fuel-related companies because it “presupposes” their researchers are biased.

Paul Tice, an adjunct professor of finance at New York University, said universities need to be careful when rejecting money from fossil fuel companies because the money could be going to student programs in need of funding, not just research.

He said all research funding comes with “strings attached” from the donors. Tice said only a small percentage of research funding comes from fossil fuel-related companies as opposed to government agencies, which account for the vast majority of research funding in higher education.

GW’s total research funding from government agencies has increased by 72 percent in nine years, from more than $110 million in FY 2012 to nearly $190 million in FY 2021, according to a report on GW’s research enterprise in February.

“Let’s have a level playing field because up until now, the amount of money flowing in from both sides has been very uneven, and the criticism has been leveled more at the smaller source of money,” Tice said. “Because we’re trying to gang up on the industry on many fronts.”

Paul Bubbosh, an adjunct professor at George Mason University and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, said university policy “safeguards” research from biases by requiring researchers to disclose their funding sources. He said people make the “mistake” of assuming funding sources lead to bias in research, and the academic integrity of an institution is not in question if the research is sound and well supported.

“This concept that the mere association with fossil-fuel interests suggests a lack of independence is faulty,” Bubbosh said in an email. “The research itself has to be judged on its merits and not on the perceptions of bias.”

Bradford Cornell, a professor emeritus of finance at the University of California, Los Angeles, said when universities and researchers receive donations from fossil fuel companies, researchers need to clearly outline funding sources so that the results of the research won’t be rewritten to match the interest of the donor.

“I just emphasize that every gift is a negotiation, and it has to be treated as such,” Cornell said.

This post has been updated to correct the following: 
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the report was co-authored by Data for Progress and Fossil Free Research. Kumar authored the report. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported the name of Fossil Free Research. We regret these errors.

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