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How much is Princeton’s contract with Exxon worth? Why does it matter?

<h5>The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here. 

In July of 2020, Princeton renewed a contract with ExxonMobil. A press release by the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment did not disclose how much the contract was worth. The former contract of 2015 was worth $5 million — $1 million per year for 5 years. In December 2020, I contacted Princeton’s Dean of Research (who referred me to the Office for Communications) with multiple requests for details about the value of the new Exxon-Andlinger contract. The Office referred me to the press release but did not provide information about the value of the contract.

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Non-government funding at Princeton has grown considerably over the past few years, climbing from $35 million in 2015 to $44 million in 2019 — including funding from fossil fuel companies BP and Exxon. One of the founding principles of the Andlinger Center, which receives Exxon funding, was that the center would be closely tied to its corporate partners. 

In 2017-18, Princeton published breakdowns of research funding detailing who got what, how much, and from whom. The data for 2019 were aggregated (meaning it does not identify BP or Exxon as funders), and as of April 2021, the breakdowns for earlier years are no longer available. None of the History of Sponsored Research Expenditures data on the website for the Office of the Dean for Research provide an indication of the funders or the projects. I have made multiple requests to the Office of the Dean for Research for these links to be updated with breakdowns (as seemed to be practice at one point) but have received no response. 

To prevent conflicts of interest from subverting or dictating the research agenda at Princeton, the University must remain transparent about research funding. This is particularly important in research where the funder has a financial interest in the research outputs and what it means for their business model. For example, one of the areas of research for the Exxon-Andlinger partnership is carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS aims to capture carbon from the air and store it underground. The technology is contentious, and it does not threaten Exxon’s core business model as renewables do.

It is important that we understand the priorities for funded research at Princeton, not through slick advertisements but through a breakdown of what projects are funded. CCS may be a part of the solution, but it is critical to have a frank conversation about how much of Princeton’s research funded by BP and Exxon goes to CCS technologies versus how much goes to renewable energy research. 

We must be aware of potential conflicts of interest at the University, not only so that Princeton can produce good research, but so it can make conflict-free decisions about its own investments. Ben Franta has written about the ways in which fossil fuel-funded research at Stanford University influences the debate about divestment there. 

The Princeton Board of Trustees is about to consider a proposal for divestment from fossil fuels — if Princeton votes against the proposal, we must be able to evaluate whether concerns about research funding are involved in their decision-making. A research partnership worth $20 million would have very different implications than a partnership worth $200,000. Common sense argues that a larger grant might weigh more heavily on the administration when making decisions — more jobs are at stake and more research labs may be impacted. If the University has a financial stake in continuing to resist divestment, it is important that we know of it for the sake of transparency and good governance. 

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For Princeton, it is much easier to quietly accept money than to deal with public scrutiny over its choice of research partners. The University can avoid messy public conversations about conflicts of interest or how those funding partnerships might affect its research agenda and decision-making. The concealment of detailed research funding data also means that the University would not have to justify future research partnerships because we wouldn’t know about them. 

For example, we know from the 2017-18 data that Princeton research are funded by Facebook, but the 2019 data do not reveal this partnership. What are the ethical concerns and considerations in Princeton taking money from Facebook? This is a good and difficult question that we ought to grapple with, but without disclosure that this partnership exists, we will not be able to have this conversation in the first place.

Concealing information about research funding and partnerships is a further step away from accountability. The University is following a troubling broader trend of covering up financial partnerships in favor of dark money. Princeton and Exxon get all the benefits of the partnership and none of the accountability. 

Even as students, faculty, and staff at Brown University have proposed minimum standards in their funding agreements and partnerships, Princeton has moved in the other direction. Instead, Princeton should: 

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  1. Publicly and annually disclose (so that it is easily accessible) all research funding sources by the donor, amount, project funded, and recipients; and 
  2. Develop a policy of minimum standards for its research and funding partnerships that ensures that research partners are not involved in spreading mis/disinformation and that those companies are aligned with Princeton’s values. 

Transparency matters. 

Tom Taylor is an MPA student from Melbourne, Australia. His email is tlmt@princeton.edu. 

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