Iowa State received nearly $20 million from fossil fuel companies

Iowa State received nearly $20 million from several fossil fuel companies between 2010 to 2020, using most of the funds to develop biorenewable technologies.

A report from Data for Progress released on March 1 analyzed the influence of funding from fossil fuel companies in universities in the U.S. Among the 27 universities included in the report, Iowa State was said to have received $19.8 million from ConocoPhillips Company, Koch Industries, Inc., Chevron Corp., ExxonMobil Corp. and Shell plc.

Bella Kumar, an affiliate researcher for Data for Progress, said industry-funded research, particularly fossil fuel industry-funded climate research, poses a great conflict of interest.

Much of the Iowa State funding referenced in the report comes from ConocoPhillips, which intends to help fund technology development to produce biorenewable fuels, according to an Iowa State News Service article.

The article also states ConocoPhillips would fund research to understand and support environmental sustainability, among other things.

Kumar said fossil fuel companies likely fund projects like Iowa State’s Biorenewables program to open up a new market for themselves and generate a claim to climate-friendly practices.

Kumar said the numbers included in the report are likely the tip of the iceberg, as the researchers were only able to uncover donations or payments that were publicly available. She said the actual amount of money universities receive from fossil fuel companies is likely much higher.

Also listed in the report were several small donations awarded to the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Iowa State Communications Specialist Angie Hunt stated in an email response, of the funding identified in the report, nearly 88% supports biofuel programs, including a project to develop advanced biorenewable technology, which also received a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Energy.

Hunt also stated that from 2018 to 2022, Iowa State received $385 million in non-federal research funding. She said, of that amount, only $324,774 came from companies listed in the report.

“Iowa State has established policies and procedures to maintain the integrity of its research enterprise,” Hunt stated. “The university reviews all new privately funded research programs – from all funders – to ensure that participating faculty are free to come to their own conclusions based on the data available and to share their findings with the broader scientific community.”

Hunt stated that as with any research, published results are peer-reviewed and researchers are required to disclose the funding sources. She stated that with limited state and federal funding, industry partnerships are important for maintaining university research.

Hunt stated that Iowa State researchers have conducted studies related to biorenewables, including new production technologies, the use of different fuel sources, policy issues and economic impacts.

Kumar said because fossil fuel companies have a vested interest in the fossil fuel industry, they fund research that allows them to stay in business and perpetuate their ecological toll.

“Allowing the fossil fuel industry to dictate what types of climate research are being done [and] allowing them to be at the forefront of the climate movement is really dangerous,” Kumar said.

Kumar said fossil fuel companies fund research projects to greenwash their reputation and to justify the environmental damage they cause.

Kumar said fossil fuel companies have been able to recenter natural gas in the conversation around renewables by funding research through universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She said studies from MIT, which have painted natural gas as a solution on par with other renewable energy solutions, have largely been considered pseudoscience by the larger scientific community.

“You also have instances like [George Washington University] where I go, we have the Regulatory Study Center, which is almost fully fossil-funded, that does pretty much explicitly deregulatory Climate Policy Research,” Kumar said. “96% of their research advocates for less regulation, particularly on the climate.”