Columbia Appoints Committee to Consider Questions About Fossil Fuel Funding and Research

A final report and suggestions will include input from students, faculty, researchers, and other constituents across the University.

July 09, 2024

In a major step toward answering important questions regarding its use of fossil fuel industry funds for research and related activities, Columbia University has appointed a committee to evaluate the issue, engage with the campus community, and put forward recommendations for consideration.

“This new committee will evaluate the ramifications of accepting fossil fuel industry funding for our research and related activities,” said Columbia University President Minouche Shafik. “Given the reality of a rapidly changing climate and our many efforts to confront the climate crisis, it’s important for Columbia to pursue effective policies that ensure the credibility and success of our research activities. I’d like to thank the co-chairs and all of the members of the committee for taking on this important issue. I look forward to reviewing their report and its recommendations upon the conclusion of their work.”

“Columbia’s research enterprise is one of our greatest assets,” said Executive Vice President for Research Jeannette Wing.Ensuring research integrity, through cogent policies, is paramount. This committee will be carefully considering a critical policy issue from multiple perspectives and I greatly look forward to the outcome of its work.”

Concerns about the potential undue influence of the fossil fuel industry on academic research have been reported in the press and in scholarly publications. Columbia’s conflict of interest policies address these concerns to some degree, but they do not answer the question of whether funding from fossil fuel companies should receive special scrutiny. The Senior Advisory Group on Research Risk and Policy has therefore appointed an ad hoc committee of faculty to consider the following key questions:

  1. Going forward, should Columbia receive support from fossil fuel companies for its research and research-related activities?
  2. What are the potential risks and benefits of future acceptance of fossil fuel funding for research at Columbia?
  3. Are there dimensions specific to the nature or discipline of the research in question (e.g., basic scientific or engineering research versus policy or legal research versus ethics) to be considered in answering these questions?
  4. Do all fossil fuel companies warrant the same approach, or are there differences among them that should be considered?
  5. What criteria should be used to assess fossil fuel funding opportunities as they arise, and whether they should or should not be accepted by the University? Can broad guidance be developed to supplement or eliminate case-by-case evaluation?
  6. Are there other questions concerning fossil fuel funding for research and research-related activities that the University should consider?

To carry out this charge, the committee is expected to engage with and receive input from students and student groups, faculty, researchers, and other constituents across the University.

The committee is expected to produce a report and suggest a set of guiding principles that may be used by the University in relation to future decision making about fossil fuel funding for research. The committee will be co-chaired by School of the Arts Dean Sarah Cole and Keren Bergman, the Charles Batchelor Professor of Electrical Engineering.

“The University has assembled an impressive committee composed of members with a diverse set of experiences and expertise,” said Cole and Bergman. “The group will be approaching its work of evaluating the use of fossil fuel industry funds for research and related activities in a spirit of open inquiry. We’re excited to work with this distinguished group of leaders and researchers to learn about all aspects of this issue and to deliver a set of recommendations the University can consider going forward.”

The committee will include the following members from across the University to provide the necessary diverse viewpoints to evaluate these questions.

Ruth de Fries: University Professor; Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology; Chief Academic Officer for the Climate School; Co-Founding Dean Emerita of the Climate School; University Senator (Education Committee); member of Institutional Conflict of Interest Committee

Michael Doyle: University Professor, SIPA and Political Science

Michael Gerrard: Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice, Director of Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School; University Senator (Faculty Affairs, Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee)

David S. Goldberg: Paros Lamont Research Professor in Climate Science Research and Carbon Management and Deputy Director, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Director, Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy

Julie Herbstman: Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, Director of Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, Director and Career Development Program Director of the Columbia Center for Environmental Health and Justice in Northern Manhattan

Harrison Hong: John R. Eckel Jr. Professor of Financial Economics

Robe Imbriano: Ira A. Lipman Associate Professor of Journalism; Director, Ira. A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights

Kate Orff: Professor of Architecture, Planning & Preservation and of Climate; and Director, Urban Design Center, GSAPP

Bruce Usher: Professor of Professional Practice; Co-Director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School; Elizabeth B. Strickler '86 and Mark T. Gallogly '86 Faculty Director; chair of Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing

Jennifer Wenzel: Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies

Alan West: Samuel Ruben-Peter G. Viele Professor of Electrochemistry and Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering; Co-Director, Columbia Electrochemical Energy Center.

The committee chairs will also appoint at least two non-voting student liaisons to the committee. The role of the student liaisons will be to ensure that the committee hears broad and diverse student perspectives on the issues before the committee. The student liaisons will be selected through a transparent process in the Fall semester. 

The committee will engage in dialogue and listening sessions with the campus community as part of its work and is expected to produce its final report and recommendations for President Shafik by Fall 2025.

Columbia University has made a significant commitment to climate action and sustainability, demonstrated through many University actions. These include the establishment of the world’s first Climate School; the establishment of Columbia’s Office of Sustainability; Columbia’s Plan 2030 sustainability strategy; the plan to build a new biomedical research building that will be one of the first net zero buildings of its kind in New York City; and the University’s commitment to sustainable investment and its position of non-investment in publicly traded oil and gas companies.