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Britain’s most prestigious universities have taken more than £60m in research and teaching funding from companies in the coal, oil and gas sector in the past five years, The Independent can reveal.

Data obtained via freedom of information (FOI) requests shows that earth sciences departments at the majority of the 24 Russell Group universities in the UK have taken money from fossil fuel interests since 2015 – despite the fact that, publicly, several have declared a “climate emergency” and pledged to divest from fossil fuel companies.

The earth sciences department at Imperial College London was by far the largest recipient of funding, accounting for around half at £30.1m.

Research into ways to extract oil more efficiently was among projects funded by the coal, oil and gas sector at Imperial College London in the last five years, the FOI results show. Some projects have been funded by well-known oil majors including Shell, Total and Chevron.
Rachel Kennerley, of Friends of the Earth, told The Independent: “Our universities shape the way we think about the world and how we approach problems like the climate crisis. Money from companies that have a vested interest in digging up and burning coal, oil and gas should not have any influence over that.

“Governments, businesses and communities across the world are waking up to the need for a green and fair plan to recover from coronavirus and fight the climate crisis. Yet coal, oil and gas companies continue to drag their heels on building a cleaner, safer future and want to lock in decades more burning of planet-wrecking fossil fuels.”

The second-largest funding recipient was the earth sciences department at the University of Leeds (£11.2m), followed by the University of Edinburgh (£7.5m), the University of Oxford (£4.9m) and the University of Cambridge (£1.7m). (Of the £11.2m received by the University of Leeds, £5.3m was for research, whereas the rest was for fee income linked to taught programmes.)

Together, the top five universities accounted for 90 per cent of all the research funding handed from fossil fuel interests to earth sciences departments, according to the data available.

The true figure is likely to be higher, however, as the University of Manchester refused to provide information while Newcastle University gave data only for 2017 onwards.The earth sciences departments at the universities of York, Birmingham, Nottingham, Queen Mary, Queen’s Belfast and Southampton responded by saying they had not received any funding from the coal, oil and gas sector in the last five years.

In addition, the universities of King’s College, the London School of Economics and the University of Sheffield do not have a clear earth sciences department and so were not included in the investigation.Some of the universities shown in the chart above, including Bristol, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge, said it would be too difficult to provide information on all the funding they had received from the entire fossil fuel sector. Instead, they provided information on the money they had received by the largest 50 coal, oil and gas companies.

All of the top five recipients have previously pledged to sell their shares in fossil fuel companies after facing pressure from students and environmental activists.

However, they have made varied commitments when it comes to research funding tied to fossil fuel companies. In its climate crisis action plan released in 2019, the University of Leeds made “a commitment to reorient research and teaching away from the fossil fuel sector over time”.

A spokesperson for the University of Leeds said: “The University of Leeds has a strong academic record as a leader in energy security and climate research, and funding received from oil and gas companies supports innovations in a range of areas, including renewable energy.

“Ongoing collaboration is essential between the oil and gas sectors and universities worldwide to support the transition to a green economy, and our researchers have active programmes in geothermal energy, carbon capture, the use of subsurface storage and decommissioning oil and gas infrastructure.

“We receive no funding from coal companies and are progressively reorientating our oil- and gas-facing activities in line with our climate principles, which will guide how we mobilise our expertise in the future to tackle this most pressing global challenge.”

Imperial College London, which is home to the prestigious Grantham Institute for Climate Change, earlier this year launched a research programme aimed at “helping society reach zero pollution”.

At the time of the launch, Professor Mary Ryan, vice-dean of research at the faculty of engineering (which is separate from the earth sciences department), said: “We see CO2 as a pollutant, a major and urgent pollutant, but not the only thing we should be thinking of.

“It’s really about an entire system. Thinking about how to address pollution at source and understanding the impact of it in the whole life cycle.”

A spokesperson for Imperial College London said: “Industry-supported research is helping us develop meaningful solutions to climate change. Our scientists and engineers are working at the leading edge of clean and sustainable energy technology as we work towards a zero pollution economy.

“Our industry engagement is highly selective, underpinned by our efforts to drive change toward the energy transition. We have set up an academic-led group to help ensure our stakeholder engagement and influence through our research and education is effective and measurable. Where companies’ current activities and future plans are not aligned with Imperial’s policies, and efforts at influence do not work, we will sever ties.

“Imperial hosts one of the world’s most significant centres for carbon capture and storage research and innovation; our innovations in synthetic membrane and sustainable gas are reducing carbon and methane emissions – such work is strengthened by industry funding and smart, highly selective engagement.”

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “The University of Edinburgh has made a commitment to become a zero carbon university by 2040, developing and pioneering approaches to deliver a circular economy and protecting and enhancing biodiversity. We have also made a commitment to transition out of fossil fuels investments by 2021.

“Our research in the area of earth sciences includes a focus on finding solutions to support a transition to net zero carbon emissions, in line with Scottish, UK and global ambitions via the UNFCCC Paris Agreement. This includes research funded by energy companies into potential solutions, including carbon capture and geological storage, heat storage and extraction from old mine working, and documenting and understanding changes in north sea ocean-floor ecosystems.”

Professor Molly Scott Cato, a former Green Party MEP and green economics researcher, told The Independent: “Fossil fuel industry attempts to deny the truth around climate change over the last few decades have delayed the necessary action and left us in a climate emergency. It is worrying that these companies still have a huge hand in funding research.

“While universities continue to defend academic freedom, it seems naive to suggest that these companies do not receive anything in return for their money and there are clear concerns over what projects even get picked up when universities are relying on money from fossil fuel companies.

“Higher education is a public good and so universities should receive proper government funding so they do not need to rely on attracting money from private interests.”

The Independent also approached the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for comment.