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Divest Harvard Alumni Demand Ban on Research Funding From Companies With Fossil Fuel Ties

Students rally outside the John Harvard statue in 2021 to call on the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuels.
Students rally outside the John Harvard statue in 2021 to call on the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. By Pei Chao Zhuo
By Sabrina R. Hu and Jeffrey Q. Yang, Crimson Staff Writers

A year after Harvard pledged to divest its endowment from fossil fuels, an alumni group is calling on the University to turn down research funding from companies with ties to the fossil fuel industry.

In a report released Wednesday, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard Alumni recommended that Harvard ban research departments from accepting funds from companies tied to fossil fuels and increase transparency around potential conflicts of interest involving the industry.

In September 2021, after years of public pressure, Harvard said it would move to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Still, organizers with FFDHA said they hope to see Harvard implement further initiatives to address climate change.

“We don’t think that the work is finished,” said FFDHA organizer Melanie Y. Wang ’15.

The report alleges that researchers who receive funding from groups with ties to the fossil fuel industry may face conflicts of interest in framing research questions and reporting their findings.

According to the report, some of Harvard’s “most problematic fossil fuel ties” are within climate and environmental policy programs at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. These financial connections include ties to Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell, the report claims.

“I was a student studying Environmental Science and Public Policy at Harvard, and I saw firsthand that there were centers and professors who took money from the fossil fuel industry to fund their activities and research,” FFDHA organizer Caleb D. Schwartz ’20 said. “I felt like that was a problem.”

HKS spokesperson James F. Smith did not respond to a request for comment.

Schwartz said FFDHA stands in a unique position as a group of alumni because members can vote for candidates for the Board of Overseers, one of Harvard’s two governing boards.

“We feel like as alums who are not directly employed by the University or aren’t directly students of the University, we have a little bit more freedom to do this sort of work and be vocal about it without risking consequences,” Schwartz said.

In the report, FFDHA also demanded more transparency from Harvard around the sources of funding for its academic research.

FFDHA said in the report that they made 104 inquiries into Harvard departments and institutes about fossil fuel ties. According to Wang, “only about a quarter of the departments that we reached out to responded to us,” of which the “vast majority” declined to disclose the requested information.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on FFDHA’s report.

Wang said the lack of transparency on sources of research funding challenges Harvard’s credibility surrounding its climate goals.

“We really feel that in order to be the climate leader that the University is trying to position itself as, making these or establishing clarity around these kinds of policies is critical to protect academic integrity and the quality of research,” Wang said.

Other organizations on campus — including the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers, the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, and Harvard Faculty for Divestment — have endorsed FFDHA’s report. Divestment and sustainability groups at Stanford and Princeton have also signed on in support.

“Harvard’s white paper really sets a higher bar for advancing the fossil-free research movement,” said June Choi, a Ph.D candidate and sustainability organizer at Stanford.

Alex H. Norbrook, an undergraduate organizer at Divest Princeton, emphasized the importance of a “unified front” in the movement for fossil fuel divestment.

Going forward, Wang said FFDHA has contacted the University’s two governing boards — the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers — as well as University Provost Alan F. Garber ’76 in hopes of starting a “concrete conversation.”

Schwartz remains hopeful that Harvard can “be a leader” in combating climate change.

“We sincerely want Harvard to be the leader it claims to be and wants to be, and we want Harvard to get this right because we don’t get a redo with the climate crisis,” he said. “We have to do it right.”

—Staff writer Sabrina R. Hu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sxbrinahhu.

—Staff writer Jeffrey Q. Yang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyqyang

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