Institutes are an important driver in university research, usually created when a chunk of money is given by a person/place to target a particular topic. Really big institutes have their own offices or even buildings, but usually they exist as a virtual structure within the university as a whole, paying for academics and support staff, including grad students, to do research and outreach on the topic in question. Dartmouth, for example, has the Institute for Health Policy, and UNH has the Institute on Disabilities.
Dartmouth has just launched a new one: The Irving Institute for Energy and Society, which will “work at the intersection of energy and society from four main perspectives: technology and science; society and the environment; business and economics; and geopolitics, ” as the school described today.
That sounds excellent, but note that the initial $113 million is coming from the Irving family, as in Irving Oil, a Canadian oil firm with a huge presence in Portsmouth, N.H. Some folks will roll their eyes at this news, saying that an institute funded by fossil fuels won’t help us think past fossil fuels.
This is a reasonable concern, since funding sources affects research priorities. (If there was a SolarCity Institute of Energy Policy, it would never discover that photovoltaic power isn’t very good.) The hope is that the academic culture of a place like Dartmouth will at least partly overcome the desire to please Uncle Moneybags – that’s why institutes within universities are, in general, more reliable than institutes which exist independently.