University should ban research funding from anti-environmental companies

GW touts itself as a “leader in urban sustainability,” and its campus operations have become much more efficient in the past several years. But campus operations are not the only important dimension of University sustainability. As a research institution, one of GW’s primary objectives is to tell the public the truth. Companies like Exxon-Mobil and Koch Industries – along with other big corporations – have attempted to alter GW researchers’ objective reporting of the facts by wooing cash-strapped researchers with donations. For decades, this practice has become increasingly common all over the country. Unfortunately, for both universities and the public, corporate money can come with implicit strings attached.

The oil industry has been a particularly active sponsor of research on our campus. According to Exxon-Mobil’s 2016 corporate giving disclosure for research, the company donated $105,000 to the University. GW’s name appears in the document alongside other well-known institutions, including notorious climate-denying organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Hoover Institution. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, Exxon provided more research funding to GW than it did to any other university.

The bulk of Exxon’s donation to GW went to the Regulatory Studies Center, a research institute within the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy. With its $60,000 gift from Exxon – and additional funding from other anti-environmental interest groups like the Koch Foundation – the RSC aims to influence regulatory policy-making by “raise[ing] awareness of regulations’ effects.”

The contents of the RSC’s research leave little doubt as to why their fossil fuel industry patrons have been so generous. RSC papers allege that federal pollution regulations are based on “politicized science,” and that scientists hold too much sway in the debate over climate change and environmental policy. The organization’s chair is Susan Dudley, an alumna of the Bush administration who claimed in Congressional testimony that smog prevents skin cancer and criticized the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that carbon dioxide emissions pose a danger to public welfare. Dudley previously chaired the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, another Koch-sponsored research organization which came under fire during her tenure for political bias and lack of academic freedom.

Given GW’s stated commitment to sustainability and climate action, it is troubling to see GW’s preeminence as a research university deployed to legitimize the fossil fuel industry’s political narrative. Exxon’s strong presence in our research institutions is especially disturbing due to the company’s long track record of misleading the public about the dangers of climate change. At this moment in our nation’s political history – when basic facts about climate science and other issues have come under attack from the highest office in the land – objective research serves as the last line of defense against “alternative facts” and corporate spin. It is painful to see GW, an institution which claims to have joined the global call for climate justice, become a participant in the anti-environmental politics propagated by the current presidential administration. The University has failed to consider the ramifications of allowing Exxon-Mobil and the Koch Foundation to sponsor research in our name.

Eric Teller is a member of the coordinating committee for Fossil Free GW.

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