Does fossil fuel funding impact university research? Emily Eaton, an associate professor at the University of Regina’s department of geography and environmental studies, wanted to find out. In 2017, she made a routine request for information regarding oil and gas companies that support research at the university. Her request was partially denied — the university agreed to release the amount of funding and the name of the research project, but not the name of the funder or the department or faculty that received the money.
Eaton took her concerns to Saskatchewan’s freedom of information and privacy commissioner, who ruled in the professor’s favour. The university has refused to release the information. Eaton’s case will go before the courts on Feb. 26.
The researcher recently spoke to Saskatchewan-based freelance journalist Patricia Dawn Robertson about the case and the motivation behind her work.
Patricia Dawn Robertson: What’s the tone like at work for you now? You have the support of the faculty association. Is it neutral, is it tense, or is it supportive?
Emily Eaton: I’ve only heard positive feedback about the importance of the case and support from my colleagues. I’m sure there are some that don’t support me, somewhere, but they’re not voicing that at all.
Recently, my colleagues from the University of Saskatchewan brought a resolution to the Canadian Association of University Teachers to support the case financially. So there’s been support, not just at the University of Regina, but also from academics across the country.
PDR: Who else has been supportive of you and the case?
EE: I would be remiss if I characterized the support as only coming from academics. I can’t remember which month it was, but CBC’s As it Happens interviewed me and I got a lot of support for the case from a wide range of folks who heard the interview. I heard from people from across the country and from all walks of life but also more locally. This issue is important not only to academics in Regina and Saskatchewan but to the broader public as well.
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PDR: What drives your work?
EE: All of my work has had to do with rural Saskatchewan and the Prairies. I started studying Saskatchewan’s oil industry shortly after I came back to the province [in 2009]. We were in the middle of an oil boom, yet there was nobody really studying the effects of the oil industry locally. And so that research really brought me to a lot of rural communities, and listening to what farmers and ranchers and other rural people were experiencing.
Then I became part of this larger work funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council — a project called Mapping the Power of The Carbon Extractive Corporate Resource Sector, which is a mouthful, so we call it the Corporate Mapping Project.
What that project was trying to do was to map out the influence and power of the carbon extractive industry — looking at how they exercise power and influence over many aspects, including institutions of civil society.
Before this project, I had begun a research project on fossil fuels in Saskatchewan’s educational system, so I already did some work on the K-12 system. And I was going to be looking at the influence of fossil fuel corporations in university research as well.
My first stop was to file this freedom of information request, just to get a high-level overview of what kinds of companies are involved, what kinds of research they are involved in. The lack of information put a temporary end to that line of research trajectory.
PDR: When you were doing the elementary school research, did you face any obstacles?
EE: No, but I didn’t request the same type of data. I never made a freedom of information request with the school board. We mostly gathered research by interviewing teachers who use materials the fossil fuel industries have produced for teaching about climate change and energy. And then we also interviewed teachers in rural oil-producing areas to find out how the social power of the industry in the communities influences their teaching.
If I lose, I think it’s really a sad commentary on the state of our public institutions.
PDR: Do you have an environmental legacy in mind?
EE: I don’t have a particular idea of a legacy. I guess, as I said earlier, when I moved back to Saskatchewan, all eyes were on Alberta. The social movement and the environmental NGOs have all been — for good reason — focused on the tar sands.
The impact that I wanted to make was really to highlight that Saskatchewan is the second largest oil-producing province in Canada. I wanted to show what the impacts are locally. The fossil fuel industry, as well as the government, have been let off the hook because they haven’t been subject to scrutiny the same way that the industry and the government has been in Alberta.
My contribution has been to document the nature of the industry and its impact on communities and to try and highlight the voices of rural people who are suffering in some ways because of the impacts of the industry. Now, my research is taking on more of a transition angle, so what I really want to do is further the conversation around how we prepare for the next economy and do that in a way that is just for rural, producing communities.
PDR: What are you going to do if you lose the case?
EE: Well, I might still try to find a way to do the research on the influence of fossil fuel corporations on the university in a less comprehensive way. If I lose, I think it’s really a sad commentary on the state of our public institutions. This would be a precedent-setting case in that it green-lights research being done in secret in public institutions…and we haven’t collectively decided that we want to travel down that road. I’m pretty confident I won’t lose, but if I do I think we’ve got some work to do nationally across our institutions to have a conversation about what the nature of research should be in public institutions.
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