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Fossil industry and academia: mapping the ties between universities and fossil fuel companies

As part of a coalition (Scientists4Future, Scientist Rebellion, University Rebellion, Fossielvrij NL, Reclame Fossielvrij, Social Tipping Point Coalition, Milieudefensie Jong and others) we are collecting information on the relationships between Dutch universities and fossil fuel companies.

We support and coordinate decentralised research into relationships between universities and fossil companies. We do this through decentralised information gathering on campuses, freedom of information (FOI) requests, and crowdsourcing, starting in the Netherlands but with a view to expanding into other countries. The gathered information is integrated into a regularly-updated database and displayed on an interactive web portal. This functions as an information source for investigative journalists, action groups, students, university staff and administrators, NGOs, policymakers, and the public.

The web portal provides the aforementioned target groups with answers to the following questions: 

  • Which fossil ties does each university have – as far as we have been able to determine (funding research, dual function researchers, guest lectures, sponsoring study associations, etc.)?
  • When/why is it problematic if a university has ties to fossil fuel companies?
  • Which universities and faculties are fossil-free and which have the most fossil ties?
  • Which of the ties that we have identified are most problematic?
  • What actions have been taken by activist groups and how are universities responding to the actions?
  • What are the policies of different universities around this issue and what promises have they made?  

Why map the ties between universities and the fossil fuel industry?

Activist students and staff have increasingly been putting pressure on their universities to cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry, with several university occupations in the last half year. In the Netherlands in particular, these actions generated a lot of media attention, led to internal discussions, and even inspired a moratorium on research with fossil companies pending a more comprehensive discussion.

Recent research shows that fossil fuel funding sources influence research results in terms of their favourability towards natural gas. Funding can also influence the direction of research towards technologies which will least disrupt fossil companies’ business model rather than those most necessary for an energy transition: a much higher percentage of financing for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) comes from oil and gas companies than for any other renewable technology. 

Fossil companies also have a large presence in student life, through sponsoring student societies, student outings, career events, and guest lectures, allowing them to advertise to students and staff, and present a one-sided image of their activities. The ties between academia and fossil fuel companies can lead to greenwashing and legitimising harmful practices. Universities contribute to a “social licence to operate” for fossil fuel companies by collaborating with them on “green” projects and allowing them to present themselves as socially engaged.  

The relationships between universities and fossil companies are far from transparent. Conflicts of interest and funding sources are frequently not publicly declared; in one of the most extreme cases uncovered to date, research from Erasmus University which was used as a basis for changing Dutch tax policy was secretly financed by Shell. This lack of transparency stymies action groups: making fossil ties transparent is crucial to an open discussion about what relationships fossil companies should have with universities.

Some action groups in the Netherlands and abroad have begun gathering information as a basis for further petitions and actions and plan to file Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. In the Netherlands, we are in contact with these groups and intend to support them in their research. We are also in contact with research and action groups in other countries and plan to expand our methodology to other countries (e.g. the UK, Germany). 

How can I help?

If you know of any ties to fossil fuel companies at your university, you can inform us through this form or contact us at We can then investigate further and add the relationship to our website (preliminary version here).

If you want to get involved, contact us or your local University Rebellion, Scientist Rebellion, or Scientists for Future group.