Private research funders court controversy with billions in secretive investments

Science | AAAS | 12/6/2018 | Staff
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A few years ago, scientists funded by the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's wealthiest private philanthropies, published sobering findings about the deadly effects of air pollution. In a long-term study of elderly residents of Hong Kong, China, those exposed to higher levels of smog—especially tiny particles of soot produced by burning fossil fuels—were more likely to die of cancer than people who breathed cleaner air.

The study, published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention in 2016 by researchers from the University of Hong Kong and the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, is one of many to highlight the health threats posed by soot. And it is just one product of the extensive investments that Wellcome, with $29.3 billion in assets, has made in environmental science. "We aim to stimulate research excellence and develop global collaborations to drive change," the London-based philanthropy explains on a web page that highlights its commitment to making "cities healthy and environmentally sustainable."

Trust - Years - Investments - Companies - Problems

The trust does not highlight, however, that some of the more than $1.2 billion it has handed out annually in recent years comes from investments in companies that contribute to the same problems the philanthropy wants to solve. Not long before the Hong Kong study was published, for example, the trust became an investor in Varo Energy, a company based in Cham, Switzerland, that sells fuel to shipping firms. One of Varo's main products is bunker fuel for marine engines: a cheap, sulfurous residue of oil refining that is a major source of soot pollution. Particulates billowing from ship stacks contribute to the premature deaths of 250,000 people annually, researchers estimate.

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Large investors commonly use offshore funds to maximize returns, in part by reducing the taxes investors would otherwise...
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