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Dartmouth students urge college to stop accepting research money from fossil fuel companies

The Irving Institute at Dartmouth.
Michael Tvrdon, courtesy Fossil Free Dartmouth
The Irving Institute at Dartmouth.

A group of students at Dartmouth College is calling on the school to stop accepting research money from fossil fuel companies, citing concerns over connections between Irving Oil and the Irving Institute for Energy and Society.

Dartmouth launched the Irving Institute in 2016, after an $80 million dollar gift from the Irving family and Irving Oil, oil and gas company based in Canada.

Sarah Irving, the daughter of the company’s owner, Arthur Irving, and Sandra Irving, who is married to Arthur Irving, both serve on the institute’s board. A seat is also held by Ian Whitcomb, the president of Irving Oil. A new report from Fossil Free Dartmouth says one third of the board’s members work “directly in the fossil fuel industry or in financial institutions or law firms that are leading investors and representatives for the fossil fuel industry.”

The report says Dartmouth faculty doing research through the institute said they largely have independence in research funded by Irving, but bias could be a risk in the future.

“Dartmouth’s association with fossil fuel companies undermines academic credibility, excludes important voices from climate conversations, and perpetuates the status-quo at a time when bold, imaginative leadership is critical to rapidly steer society away from fossil fuels,” the report says.

The Fossil Free Dartmouth report argues that research funded by fossil fuel interests could lead to “sponsorship bias,” steering researchers toward “distracting” questions that could delay the phasing out of fossil fuels.

The report also calls out the issue of “greenwashing,” saying Dartmouth has helped the fossil fuel industry make itself appear more environmentally friendly.

Kate Yeo, a founder of Fossil Free Dartmouth, said her group views the Irvings’ involvement in the institution as a fundamental conflict of interest.

“If you have someone working in a fossil fuel company providing advice or input on which direction the institute should go, I mean, we don't know how that shapes or even limits the Institute's understanding of what an energy solution could look like,” said Yeo, who is a junior at the college.

In 2021, Dartmouth announced it was working to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Yeo said the next step is for the college to cut other financial ties.

In a statement provided Tuesday in response to the students’ concerns, Dartmouth spokesperson Diana Lawrence said the college is “committed to pursuing discovery that will help society understand and address the worst effects of climate change and, simultaneously, to ensuring its operations are dedicated to reducing its campus carbon footprint.”

Lawrence said Dartmouth faculty have independence in their research through the institute.

“No donor directs the operations or administration of the institute, which is guided by Dartmouth’s standard of ethics, independence, and academic freedom,” she said.

Students are also calling on Dartmouth to change the name of the Irving Institute building to “Dartmouth’s Center for Climate Futures,” to increase support for sustainability initiatives, to remove fossil fuel representatives from the Irving Institute’s advisory board by spring 2024, and to exclude fossil fuel companies from recruiting at Dartmouth.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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