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A climate activist holds a sign saying 'Fossil Free Research' outside Cambridge University on June 16, 2022.

A climate activist holds a sign saying 'Fossil Free Research' outside Cambridge University on June 16, 2022. (Photo: Martin Pope/Getty Images)

Fossil Fuel-Funded Research Is a Dealbreaker for College Applicants

When universities accept money from the fossil fuel industry, they demonstrate a complete lack of regard for their students' futures.

Sebastian Lemberger

Today, high school students are showing that we have way more power in taking climate action than might have been imagined a mere decade ago. We're taking to the streets in global climate strikes on the scale of millions, but outside of the strikes, we need to keep up the pressure for sustainable change from all of our institutions. For my peers and me, that can and must include institutions of higher education. Right now, universities, both public and private, are complicit in the progression of the climate crisis due to their acceptance of research funding from fossil fuel companies, a clear conflict of interest that jeopardizes climate research. Any sort of allyship between a university and the fossil fuel industry is a blow to its students, for it shows that the university takes no regard for their futures when choosing its partners.

We should not have to attend schools that associate with the powers that leach away the planet's lifespan with every passing day.

As a high school sophomore who will soon be applying to college, I cannot help but be concerned with the hold that the fossil fuel industry has over so many schools. Stanford, for instance, recently approved the construction of a school for sustainability funded by the philanthropist John Doerr. Despite the supposedly altruistic motives behind the school's formation, it will accept donations from fossil fuel companies. The hypocrisy of this decision raises questions about the school's integrity, for handicapping research in this way shows that Stanford cares little for the verity of their researchers' work. As a prospective college student, I would have dreamed of applying to Stanford given its seeming commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, but I find that putting research at risk in the way that the school is doing right now stands directly against the pursuit of knowledge that would attract me to it in the first place. If a school shows such disrespect to its graduate researchers, what other flaws might be present in the education it offers? Stanford and the many other schools displaying similar hypocrisy alienate potential applicants through their actions.

Prestigious universities like Stanford have shown that they will not cease their interactions with the fossil fuel industry unless forced to. An applicant or student has the power to help do this, as certain non-profit universities get around 39% of their money from student tuition. This gives weight to the action of applicants, for by refraining from applying to problem universities, we take potential money away from their endowments. Current students as well can let their voices be heard by participating in campus divestment movements or occupation protests. Such actions have been shown to have an impact on campuses, as shown by the work of Fossil Free Research. FFR is a student-led movement to sever university research from the fossil fuel industry that has achieved progress at both Cambridge and Princeton. Working with the FFR movement has given me a sense of agency pertaining to the climate crisis that I did not previously feel that I had as a mere high schooler. The existence of the movement shows that young people are perhaps not as powerless as they may seem.

Dissociation from the fossil fuel industry is beneficial for universities as well as students, for association with the fossil fuel industry harms their research, while severing connections improves their appearance. Although fossil fuel companies often try to frame themselves as working towards a green future, this is never the case. We have seen them tamper with research that they funded or even sponsor misinformation campaigns; there is no reason why they would not do so again if given the opportunity by a university. Research funded by fossil fuel companies cannot be trusted, and a university that outputs bad research cannot truly be considered a good university. Especially when an institution professes the advancement of society as one of its ideals, it needs to be proactive. Furthermore, dissociation from fossil fuel companies can improve public image. Princeton, for instance, has both pledged dissociation from certain fossil fuel companies and set up a fund to replace the research money lost by the dissociation. Princeton's commitment isn't enough, but it’s a bold and necessary start. As a potential applicant, I view this as an indicator of responsibility that shows care for research, which stands in sharp contrast to Stanford's irresponsibility.

The climate crisis often gives me the feeling that my future is out of my hands, and for the most part, this is true. Unfortunately, the course of my life is irreversibly linked to the decisions of older people who will be long gone by the time things get really bad. Young people deserve to have a say in the institutions that will shape what is to come, especially universities, which are dependent on potential students for their very existence. We should not have to attend schools that associate with the powers that leach away the planet's lifespan with every passing day. For the sake of their students (and their own credibility on climate action), universities must dissociate from the fossil fuel industry. Likewise, for the sake of the planet, it is the duty of us future university applicants and of students of these institutions to use their voices to shift the field of university climate research to a brighter future.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Sebastian Lemberger

Sebastian Lemberger

Sebastian Lemberger is a high school student and an organizer with Fossil Free Research and Our Climate. He lives in Andover, Massachusetts.

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