Report finds University of Cambridge has accepted nearly £15m from oil companies since 2017

Cambridge is the second-highest recipient of funds from oil firms among UK universities

Last week (11/12), OpenDemocracy reported that the University of Cambridge had received £14,993,000 from major oil companies since 2017. These funds were shared as donations, gifts, grants and research funds.

OpenDemocracy investigated the link between the UK’s academic institutions and eight leading oil firms, including BP, Shell, Total, Equinor, Eni, Chevron, Exxon and ConocoPhillips. Cambridge was contacted through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Of the 36 institutions that responded to the Freedom of Information inquiry, Cambridge is the second-highest recipient of funds from oil firms since 2017. It ranks below Imperial College London (£54,235,004) and Oxford (£7,771,040).

Harvey Brown, co-chair of the Student Union’s Ethical Affairs Campaign and organiser at Jesus College’s Climate Justice Campaign, said “this study confirms what students have known all along, for all its talk of ‘divestment’ and ‘world-leading’ research, Cambridge University remains the lapdog of the fossil fuel industry.”

Collaborations between Cambridge and Big Oil

While the University has announced it will divest from fossil fuels completely by 2030, this does not prevent them from accepting donations or research funding from this industry.

Some of these nearly £15m of oil money have been raised or received by Cambridge Enterprise, a subsidiary of the University which helps staff and academics form spin-out companies. For instance, a 2018 Varsity report outlined how BP and Cambridge partnership resulted in a new company that received £7m in funding.

Other funds are transferred to named professorships and prizes, including the BP Professorship of Chemistry, the Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering, and the Schlumberger Professorship of Complex Physical Systems, as reported by The Tab in 2019.

In 2019, the Guardian reported that the University of Cambridge accepted a £6 million donation from Shell to research oil extraction. This was reportedly the final donation in a financial commitment between the university and Shell that dated back to 2014.

The University is also listed on Exxon Mobil’s list of academic research partners, released on Nov 26, 2020. According to Exxon, these collaborations are part of a “global commitment to finding meaningful and scalable solutions to meet global energy demand and reduce emissions.”

Brown called these actions “shameful,” noting that “we could be massively scaling up research into renewable infrastructure, and, more importantly, making overdue reparations for the untold damage our investments and research have wrought on the living world and communities in the global South. Instead, we double down on our endorsement of these world-wrecking corporations.”

The University’s Response

Professor Chris Abell, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, provided a response to the Guardian report on the University website, outlining that: “The article implies wrongly that donors have undue influence on the course of the research they fund. Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of the University, and no donor directs research that they fund.”

A spokesperson for the University told OpenDemocracy the University has accepted funding from oil companies only if they were certain that the collaboration would help the country  “transition to decarbonised energy.”

A University spokesperson also told The Tab: “There is nothing new in this report. The University of Cambridge published its relationships with energy companies in November at the start of the COP26 global climate change talks in Glasgow to show how we are working with partners to accelerate progress to renewable or decarbonised energy.”

They also said, “Less than half a per cent of the annual research and philanthropic funding provided to Cambridge comes from the traditional energy sector and no donor directs the research that they fund.”

Feature Image Credits: Vedika Mandapati