The committee examining Stanford’s engagement with fossil fuel companies has called for greater oversight of collaborative research programs, but recommended against a prohibition on industry funding because of the potentially “inhibiting effect” on academic freedom at a time when solutions to urgent climate challenges can come from many directions.

The university created the Committee on Funding for Energy Research and Education in December 2022. Its charge was to explore current funding the university receives from fossil fuel companies, approaches of other universities, and the pros and cons of accepting such funds and of alternative approaches. The committee drew from diverse academic backgrounds and broad, relevant experience, and included administration, faculty, and student representatives.

The committee’s final report was submitted by Paul Brest, former dean of Stanford Law School, and Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, who served as co-chairs, together with committee members Michelle Anderson, professor of law and professor in the social sciences division in the Doerr School of Sustainability; Inês Azevedo, associate professor of energy science and engineering; and Leif Wenar, professor of philosophy.

“I thank the committee for the time and careful consideration that went into the report,” Stanford President Richard Saller said in accepting the report. “I endorse the findings and look forward to the important research and teaching of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.”

The executive cabinet of deans and vice provosts also have received and endorsed the committee’s recommendations.

Follow-up community meetings

The committee will discuss the report during a Zoom session with the Stanford community later this summer and will host an in-person event on campus during fall quarter. Details will be announced.

The committee examined affiliates programs, also known as IAPs, which provide insights into industry conditions and challenges, and help researchers anticipate hurdles to implementing the solutions they develop. Participating companies provide unrestricted funding for projects in which, according to the university’s Research Policy Handbook, “multiple faculty engage with multiple companies in a forum for pre-competitive research of mutual interest.”

The committee focused on affiliates programs that receive support from “companies whose core business is the exploration, extraction, and sale of fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas.”

The committee identified 77 affiliates programs across the university, including at least 13 that receive funds from fossil fuel companies. The new Industrial Affiliates Review Committee began an examination in February 2024 of the school’s programs, with a report expected this summer. A separate review of programs in other schools will begin this summer.

The committee noted the “great value to faculty research, to student funding, and ultimately to the university’s contributions to practical knowledge” from industrial affiliates programs, which bring together groups of faculty and companies to explore broad research topics.

Academic freedom and the climate crisis

The committee concluded that university-mandated dissociation from fossil fuel companies by forbidding them to be corporate affiliates would both violate academic freedom and impede climate solutions.

The university’s 1974 Statement on Academic Freedom states: “Expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged, free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion.” The prohibition of institutional orthodoxy means that the administration may not take positions on political and social issues because that would inhibit faculty members from taking alternate positions.

“Academic freedom is not an enemy of progress on the climate crisis. Indeed, the opposite is true,” the report states. “The scale and seriousness of this crisis, especially given the acute energy poverty remaining in much of the world, requires a robust and diverse community of views, actors, and tools. Academic freedom is an underpinning of good science and the translation of that science for the public interest.”

Rather than dissociate, Stanford should take steps to ensure IAPs operate consistently with institutional policies. “Better guardrails are needed to ensure scientific independence,” the panel wrote.

“We are now a university with one of the world’s greatest schools for the environmental sciences. It should be our university’s mission to search for next-generation solutions to the climate crisis wherever our faculty and our students believe they will be found,” the committee said. While increased research in clean energy sources (for example, renewables such as wind and solar) is essential, “for the foreseeable future, that search may involve fossil fuel industry data, partners, and resources.”

Oversight and effectiveness of affiliates programs

The committee said individual schools that have IAPs should ensure they are “constituted and governed” in accordance with university requirements. “We believe that this value will only be enhanced by ensuring compliance with the requirements of the RPH [Research Policy Handbook] and ensuring that faculty directors have full autonomy in fact and appearance,” the report states.

Those efforts are now underway:

  • Doerr School of Sustainability Dean Arun Majumdar and Vice Provost and Dean of Research David Studdert announced the creation of the Industrial Affiliates Review Committee in February 2024 to examine conformity of the school’s programs with the university’s rules for affiliates. Committee members are Lynn Orr, professor emeritus and the former Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences; Ann Arvin, professor emerita and former Vice Provost and Dean of Research; and Brooke Groves-Anderson, director of University Corporate and Foundation Relations.

  •  Studdert also established a broader, campus-wide review that will begin work this summer. Bruce Clemens, the Walter B. Reinhold Professor, Emeritus, at the School of Engineering, and Maureen McNichols, the Marriner S. Eccles Professor of Accounting and Public and Private Management at the Graduate School of Business, will lead that effort.

Recommendations to address corporate behavior

The committee recommended additional steps the university can take to strengthen collaboration with outside experts, further climate solutions, and protect the university’s reputation. They include:

  • Policy labs. The report states that “the propagation of outright misinformation about scientific results by an entity affiliated with Stanford – and recall that industrial affiliates are not merely donors, but are often active participants in programs with faculty and students – may be seen to compromise the University’s truth-seeking mission.”

    Research by a Law School Policy Lab in Fall 2024, taught by Brest (Law School) and Noah Diffenbaugh (Doerr School of Sustainability) will examine:

    o   How to determine whether a company has obstructed climate policies in a manner that would justify dissociation consistent with the university’s Statement on Academic Freedom.

    o   The possibility of developing standards to determine whether participating companies or trade associations have “systematically engaged in propagating disinformation.”

  • Transition pathways. “We are skeptical that dissociation based on companies’ climate transition pathways could be consistent with the prohibition of institutional orthodoxy in Stanford’s Statement on Academic Freedom,” the committee wrote. “We believe, however, that work on transition pathways by Stanford researchers could be useful to many faculty, students, and others in the field, including the companies themselves.”

    The Doerr School of Sustainability plans to build on this recommendation by:

    o   Helping companies and countries develop transition pathways. This effort will include the launch of a country-level transition pathway-planning initiative in partnership with other academic, government, and nonprofit institutions, including those based in each country.

    o   Working to build an alliance of companies who have made commitments to achieve net-zero emissions and use the school’s research and education to help to create affordable, reliable, secure, and equitable transitions.

A wide range of perspectives

During its review, the committee hosted community-wide forums and small group discussions with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and researchers and other experts “within and beyond Stanford.” Committee members also met with the “Group of Six” student leaders from the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability and the Department of Energy Sciences and Engineering, who had made a series of proposals addressing industry funding of climate research. Faculty, alumni, and industry submitted more than 100 written comments.

“We have listened to patient and respectful disagreement among our faculty colleagues and university staff. We have admired the research, passion, and wise judgments that our students have offered on all sides of these difficult issues,” the panel wrote.

“Through it all, Stanford students, staff, and faculty have shown a commendable resolve to maintain productive, good-faith engagement with each other. We are personally grateful for our community’s patience, hard work, and respectful dialogue during this process. We believe that those same factors will power the next generation of energy and climate solutions.”