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Big oil and academia

In Issue 12 of the Dalhousie Gazette, News editor Karla Renic reported that Dalhousie’s 2019 Treasury Investments Report showed over $27 million publicly traded (PT) equity holdings in mining, oil, and gas. Of that, $2,388,700 was invested into TransCanada Corporation — the owners of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. This is not a unique situation.  

Over the past decade, across the United States and Canada, millions have been given by Big Oil (Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and others) to support energy research at various universities. Private, corporate funding might fill a gap left by declining public investment, yet these figures highlight the risk of hijacking the universities’ research agenda and compromising academic independence. 

These investments are disappointing; however, they are also unsurprising. Universities and colleges are meant to be places for progressive thinking, but continuing to invest in the fossil fuels industry should be considered irresponsible and shameful. Independent academia is a place for the future, and during a time where the climate crisis should be one of the topics at the forefront while the Wet’suwet’en Nation and their allies fight against the CGL pipeline, mining, oil, and gas should not be where our money goes.  

Investments shouldn’t interfere with education 

In the book University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education by Jennifer Washburn, she found nine out of ten university oil agreements gave industry sponsors leeway to control the overall execution of research. These academia and industry relationships were shown to span from five to ten years and significantly impacted the university’s core academic independence and duty to carry out objective research. In eight out of ten agreements, she found that oil industry sponsors control the research proposal evaluation and selection. Additionally, none of these agreements required the presence of independent faculty peer review. Inadequate protections mean faculty are being forced to join contracts with oil sponsors that fail to recognize or protect basic standards of academic and research procedures. Furthermore, industry control over research collection will lead to an inequitable research environment where only favorable or agreeable research will receive funding. Energy research especially requires independent study outside the control of industry sponsors.  

Aside from compromised academic integrity, Dalhousie’s continued support for TC Energy, and their lackluster responses to divestment queries, compromises its commitment to equality and inclusion. Dalhousie has been quoted saying its “fiduciary responsibility” is a significant reason for not divesting. The current Wet’suwet’en conflict has peeled back the veneer on this flimsy argument. Behind seemingly logical and academic response, Dalhousie’s continued relationship with TC Energy shows that the university is unable to solve a major moral issue due to investment profits.   

Dalhousie has a choice 

Dalhousie is not the only university that has been pressured to divest. Several major Canadian Universities including the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, McGill University, among others, have been given offers but have chosen to decline the option of divesting. Our university, the one that we fund, learn from and go into debt for, has a choice of what they invest in. Shouldn’t those investments reflect most of its students’ views? 

It has been shown that universities primarily care about protecting donor relationships, specifically donor relationships with large oil and gas companies. The influence fossil fuel firms have in universities with agreements, oil and gas executives on university boards and investment committees is concerning. It is true that without funding, there would be no research, but the tobacco and alcohol industries should not be funding healthcare and addiction studies and the oil and gas companies should be allowed to interfere with education and science. Another argument for big oil and academia is that these relationships allow companies to develop their research from academic bodies. However, there must be a very clear line between development and control. There is currently still too much power in the hands of oil tycoons and their companies. For sustainable energy to begin to progress, fossil fuels need to leave the top spot. Investments like these interfere with the possibility of this progressive future.  

Industry sponsors should not dictate research agendas nor should they control research procedures. Strict and adequate protections, both from the industry sponsors as well as the university, must be taken seriously and implemented. There must be an urgency on the part of every university to ensure independent and credible research within these industry and academia agreements, above any financial interests.  


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