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Topic: The fossil fuel industry's invisible colonization of academia  (Read 36 times) previous topic - next topic

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  • osmanthus
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The fossil fuel industry's invisible colonization of academia
The fossil fuel industry's invisible colonization of academia

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Fossil fuel interests - oil, gas, and coal companies, fossil-fueled utilities, and fossil fuel investors - have colonized nearly every nook and cranny of energy and climate policy research in American universities, and much of energy science too. And they have done so quietly, without the general public's knowledge.

For comparison, imagine if public health research were funded predominantly by the tobacco industry. It doesn't take a neurosurgeon to understand the folly of making policy or science research financially dependent on the very industry it may regulate or negatively affect. Harvard's school of public health no longer takes funding from the tobacco industry for that very reason. Yet such conflicts of interest are not only rife in energy and climate research, they are the norm.

This norm is no accident: it is the product of a public relations strategy to neutralize science and target those whom ExxonMobil dubbed "Informed Influentials," and it comes straight out of Big Tobacco's playbook. The myriad benefits of this strategy to the fossil fuel industry (and its effects on academic research) range from benign to insidious to unconscionable, but the big picture is simple: academia has a problem.

As scientists and policy experts rush to find solutions to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, our institutions are embroiled in a nationwide conflict of interest with the industry that has the most to lose. Our message to universities is: stop ignoring it.

We are not saying that universities must cut all ties with all fossil fuel companies. Energy research is so awash with fossil fuel funding that such a proposal would imply major changes. What we are saying is that denial - "I don't see a conflict," MIT's Chairman told the Boston Globe - is no longer acceptable.

Two parallel approaches can help. First, mandatory standards should be established in climate policy and energy research for disclosing financial and professional ties with fossil fuel interests, akin to those required in medical research. And second, conflicts of interest should be reduced by prioritizing less conflicted funding and personnel.

One way or another, the colonization of academia by the fossil fuel industry must be confronted. Because when our nation's "independent" research to stop climate change is in fact dependent on an industry whose interests oppose that goal, neither the public nor the future is well served.
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