Accumulation then philanthropy

Peter Woit’s review of a new book about Jim Simons, the mathematician and capitalist who set up the Simons Foundation, which funds math and physics research around the world but principally in the West to the tune of $300 million a year, raises an intriguing question only to supersede its moral quandaries by the political rise of Donald Trump in the US. To quote select portions from the review:

In the case of the main money-maker, their Medallion fund, it’s hard to argue that the short-term investment strategies they use provide important market liquidity. The fund is closed to outside investors, and makes money purely personally for those involved with RenTech, not for institutions like pension funds. So, the social impact of RenTech will come down to that of what Simons and a small number of other mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists decide to do with the trading profits.

Simons himself has engaged in some impressive philanthropy, but one perhaps should weigh that against the effects of the money spent by Robert Mercer, the co-CEO he left the company to. Mercer and his daughter have a lot of responsibility for some of the most destructive recent attacks on US democracy (e.g. Breitbart and the Cambridge Analytica 2016 election story). In the historical evaluation of whether the world would have been better off with or without RenTech, the fact that RenTech money may have been a determining factor in bringing Trump and those around him to power is going to weigh heavily on one side.

This may be the Simons Foundation’s fate but what of other wealthy bodies that accumulate capital by manipulating various financial instruments – the way Jim Simons did – and then donate all or part of them to research? Bill Gates was complicit, as were his compatriots at Silicon Valley, in the rise of techno-optimism and its attendant politics and fallacies, but the foundation he and his wife run today is becoming instrumental in the global fight against malaria. Gates’s Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has a similar story, as did Jeffrey Epstein, as do many other ‘venture capitalists’ who had to accumulate capital – a super-sin of our times – before redistributing it philanthropically to various causes, benign and otherwise.

If these various organisations hadn’t acquired their wealth in the first place, would their later philanthropy have been necessary? A follow-up: There’s an implicit tendency to assume the research that these foundations fund can only be a good but is it really? Aside from the question of science’s, and scientists’, relationship with the rest of society, I wonder how differently research efforts would be spread around the world if the world had been spared the accumulation-then-philanthropy exercise. If there is a straightforward argument for why there’s likely to be no difference, I’m all ears; but if such an argument doesn’t exist, perhaps there’s an injustice there we should address.

A photograph of Jeffrey Epstein in 1980. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Toppling Epstein’s intellectuals network

While there have been no other high-profile exits from the MIT Media Lab after Ethan Zuckerman and J. Nathan Matias submitted their resignations, the lab’s students had been demanding its director Joi Ito to resign over his ties with Epstein. While it is ridiculous that Ito pled ignorance in his August 15 note where he admitted he had received money from Epstein for the lab as well as as investments in his personal projects, tweets by Xeni Jardan and others only made his ignorance more implausible.

Peter Aldhous and his colleagues at BuzzFeed subsequently used tax filings to track down many of his elusive grantees in one frighteningly long list that includes biologists Martin Nowak and Robert Trivers as well as the publisher of Nautilus magazine.

According to a new set of updates that hit the news over the weekend, Ito had been letting on less than he knew, and he knew that Epstein was a convicted sexual offender who had preyed upon young, vulnerable women for his sexual pleasure as well as that of a bevy of celebrities (including Marvin Minsky, the cofounder of the Media Lab). The following articles – led by Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker, who apparently published the first article based on whistleblowers at MIT who had known of Ito’s and others’s (non-ignorant) ties with Epstein but whose notes the New York Times had turned down, possibly because Ito is on the Times‘s board of directors – have all the details:

  1. Jeffrey Epstein’s Donations Create a Schism at M.I.T.’s Revered Media Lab (NYT)
  2. How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein (NYer)
  3. Director of M.I.T.’s Media Lab Resigns After Taking Money From Jeffrey Epstein (NYT)
  4. The Epstein scandal at MIT shows the moral bankruptcy of techno-elites (The Guardian)

There is also this…

… and this (the whole thread is excellent):

Farrow goes into great detail in his story but the most revealing paragraph to me was this:

… the lab was aware of Epstein’s history—in 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution—and of his disqualified status as a donor. They also show that Ito and other lab employees took numerous steps to keep Epstein’s name from being associated with the donations he made or solicited. On Ito’s calendar, which typically listed the full names of participants in meetings, Epstein was identified only by his initials. Epstein’s direct contributions to the lab were recorded as anonymous. In September, 2014, Ito wrote to Epstein soliciting a cash infusion to fund a certain researcher, asking, “Could you re-up/top-off with another $100K so we can extend his contract another year?” Epstein replied, “yes.” Forwarding the response to a member of his staff, Ito wrote, “Make sure this gets accounted for as anonymous.” Peter Cohen, the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Director of Development and Strategy at the time, reiterated, “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous. Thanks.”

While it was already ridiculous at the time of Ito’s first indication that he accepted Epstein’s money without knowing of Epstein’s crimes, it is absolutely certain now that Ito spent many, many years knowing what Epstein had done and expressed regret for his actions only when the heat became unbearable.

What’s more, MIT and the Media Lab are guilty of the same thing, descending to the moral cesspit occupied by universities around the country , and the world, that harboured exploitative professors who harassed their students, and purchased their employers’ silence with scientific expertise – whatever that stands for – and federal grants. This outcome also supports the view that without the right sociological safeguards, the naked scientific enterprise is hugely vulnerably to being instrumentalised to achieve extra-scientific goals. And Cesar Hidalgo, a former associate professor at the Media Lab and then its first and sole Hispanic member, said in a thread recounting his experiences that Ito had done just this, in his own way.

(Aside: Whenever a scientist is informed that he or she is a suspect in a crime in the TV show Elementary, their first response is often along the lines of: “But I’m a scientist!” I tend to burst out laughing at this point. It is fascinating how many people believe scientists are to be perceived as incapable of committing crimes by virtue of being scientists, as if they are not people too and – more importantly – as if they are people enslaved to the diktats of the natural universe and whose directions they follow in an unbiased and unemotional manner.)

Earlier, on August 22, Evgeny Morozov published an intriguing article in the New Republic, in which he shared an email he received from John Brockman in 2013 that showed Brockman knew about Jeffrey Epstein’s criminal activities as he continued to associate with him, and even tried to recruit intellectuals to interacting with him.

Brockman runs Brockman Inc., a literary agency that represents the who’s who of intellectual authors and writers, including Morozov himself, and now helmed by his son. More importantly, Brockman is the man behind the Edge Foundation, which runs Edge.org, an internet salon of sorts where he invites some of the world’s more renowned scientists and philosophers to discuss their ideas. Edge also hosts an annual event for the world’s billionaires, called ‘The Billionaires’ Dinner’.

Morozov’s contention was that Brockman has been awfully silent about his ties with Epstein, even though it has come to light that many of the intellectuals in Epstein’s orbit were launched there by Brockman, as well as that Epstein donated $638,000 (Rs 4.5 crore) to the Edge Foundation between 2001 and 2015. Morozov apparently fired Brockman Inc. as his literary agency until the man could clarify what his relationship with Epstein was, and emailed the notice to Brockman’s son, who currently runs the company, and shared that email on Twitter on August 26:

Morozov also encouraged other Brockman clients to speak up, and sever ties if need be with him, his agency and/or his foundation. While only a few people answered his call, it is to the whistleblowers’, Farrow’s and the Miami Herald‘s credit that being or having been associated with Epstein is finally acknowledged as a problem that isn’t subject to individual moral codes but is being recognised as an incontestable evil. I hope it is only a matter of time before more scientists recognise this, and subsequently that greater participation from their own ranks in the efforts to understand S&T’s role in society is the best way to keep such Epsteinian affairs from recurring in future.

The MIT Media Lab HQ. Credit: MIT

Another exit from MIT Media Lab

J. Nathan Matias, a newly minted faculty member at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, has announced that he will cut all ties with the latter at the end of the academic year over the lab director’s, i.e. Joi Ito’s, association with Jeffrey Epstein. His announcement comes on the heels of one by Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher and director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, who also said he’d leave at the end of the academic year despite not having any job offers. Matias wrote on Medium on August 21:

During my last two years as a visiting scholar, the Media Lab has continued to provide desk space, organizational support, and technical infrastructure to CivilServant, a project I founded to advance a safer, fairer, more understanding internet. As part of our work, CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment. I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.

Zuckerman had alluded to a similar problem with a different group of people:

I also wrote notes of apology to the recipients of the Media Lab Disobedience Prize, three women who were recognized for their work on the #MeToo in STEM movement. It struck me as a terrible irony that their work on combatting sexual harassment and assault in science and tech might be damaged by their association with the Media Lab.

On the other hand, Ito’s note of apology on August 15, which precipitated these high-profile resignations and put the future of the lab in jeopardy, didn’t at all mention any regret over what Ito’s fraternising with Epstein could mean for its employees, many of whom are working on sensitive projects. Instead, Ito has only said that he would return the money Epstein donated to the lab, a sum of $200,000 (Rs 143.09 crore) according to the Boston Globe, while pleading ignorance to Epstein’s crimes.

Joi Ito’s nerd tunnel vision

On August 15, Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s famed Media Lab, published a post apologising for fraternising with Jeffrey Epstein. His wording mimics a bit of George Church’s as well, in that Ito says he “was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of”.

This ignorance is ridiculous coming from the director of an institution whose research draws from and influences different forms of media. Ito’s account exemplifies the ‘nerd tunnel vision’ that Church spoke about: where scientists are willing to ignore the adverse ethical or moral implications for them and their work if an endeavour will benefit them directly or indirectly. It’s like Epstein was looking for the sort of investments that would shield him from unfavourable attention and found it all among scientists because they don’t ask too many questions.

However, as Church is careful to note, there’s no excuse for not keeping abreast of the news. It seems Ito has known Epstein since 2013 – giving him six years to discover that one of his major funders is a notorious sexual predator. Instead, he chose to step up only after the American media turned a glaring spotlight on the scandal.

Indeed, Church noted that labs usually don’t have to bother about the moral/ethical quality of funding and that that is checked by a different part of the university administration. While this is suboptimal, I find it funny that Ito couldn’t have known when he was surely part of the MIT Media Lab’s efforts to identify and evaluate new funders.

The charade doesn’t end here. Ito’s apology is also rendered ineffectual in part by the fact that he didn’t choose to speak up until eight months after the Miami Herald‘s investigation resuscitated the case against Epstein, and only shortly after Marvin Minsky’s involvement came to light. (Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher at the Media Lab, calls Minsky the lab’s “co-founder”.) Earlier this month, The Verge reported that Minsky was one of the men that Epstein had forced young women to sleep with.

On August 21, Zuckerman posted on his blog that he was going to leave the Media Lab at the end of the academic year because of Ito’s involvement with Epstein. “I feel good about my decision, and I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors,” he wrote.

It sounds a bit ominous; is this going to be the end of the Media Lab itself? Ito hasn’t said anything about resigning as director. Instead, he wrote in his post: “I vow to raise an amount equivalent to the donations the Media Lab received from Epstein and will direct those funds to non-profits that focus on supporting survivors of trafficking. I will also return the money that Epstein has invested in my investment funds.”

The money Epstein poured into the lab itself will stay, of course, presumably because it can’t be removed without significantly affecting the lab’s academic and research commitments. Let’s see what the lab’s other members – about 80 in total – have to say.

Would you take Epstein’s money to fund your research?

Note: Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell on August 10, 2019. The following post was written before news of his death emerged.

In 2016, I attended a talk by a not-unknown environmental activist in Chennai (not Nityanand Jayaraman, before you ask) who had spent many years stitching together community efforts to restore water bodies around Tamil Nadu. His talk covered the various challenges of his work as well as the different ways in which he overcame them. The one that stood out was his being absolutely okay with receiving donations to support his work from any and all sources, irrespective of their rectitude. He encouraged others to not shirk from any opportunity to accrue wealth because, to rephrase him, you never know why you are going to need it or when it is going to dry up.

This particular activist was a man of simple means but one thing he did have, and arguably needed to have, was the conviction that his work was useful and necessary. Notwithstanding his personal character (only because I didn’t know him that way), most people in the audience that day judged his work — or what they had been told of it — to be important and, of course, good. Most of us are not so lucky. We often have to be very careful about the way we view our work — as a public good or, more precariously, the ‘greater good’, for example — and the things we are prepared to do to justify working on.

Recently, scientists have been in the news in connection to this question thanks to an unlikely cause: Jeffrey Epstein. On August 5, STAT News published an interview of George Church, the noted American geneticist, biologist and teacher, where he apologised for having “contacts” with Epstein “even after the financier pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution”. The interview has so many parts about the behaviour of scientists around billionaires worth chewing on; consider the following example:

Universities are supposed to vet potential donors who ask to meet with a faculty member, especially if they want to fund research. Epstein made a donation to Church’s lab for “cutting edge science and education” from 2005 to 2007. “My understanding is this [vetting] is the responsibility of the development office, which is yet another reason why scientists are a little bit more relaxed,” Church said. “They feel they have administrators, who in theory do the difficult job of figuring out who’s legit.” Epstein’s donation went into what Church called “a general account used to get new projects going before we have enough preliminary data to warrant a formal grant application.”

Later, the article continued:

As for whether Epstein’s 2008 conviction gave Church (a father and grandfather) pause, he said, “I did read a couple of news articles” a decade ago, he said, “but they weren’t clear enough for me to know there was a serious problem.” (The full extent of Epstein’s crimes came out in an investigation by the Miami Herald in 2018; in the New York Times, a 2006 story [described] Epstein’s not-guilty plea … and one in 2008 characterized the allegations as “involving massages with teenage girls”). “But that is still no excuse for me not being abreast of the news.”

How much can you blame scientists for receiving money from tainted sources? I am not sure of the answer. Receiving and using money from corrupt individuals, and certainly those as morally and ethically corrupt as Epstein, is a problem because doing so:

a) Allows the corrupted to claim a form of redemption, especially when they can exploit a shortage of funds required for risky projects

b) Encourages the scientist to harbour an exceptionalism: that she gets to define what ‘good’ is through her work, and

c) Creates the demand, so to speak, that sustains the problematic supply, but this is an admittedly weak contention in this particular case.

At the same time, funding for research has been hard to come by. How often would a scientist stop to check if money sourced through a different department in her university came from a convicted sex offender – money that would ensure she and her students would get paid for the next few months, and possibly provide a way for her to produce research to further ingratiate herself with the university? Not very, possibly because she hasn’t been habituated to check.

This said, the scientist doesn’t get off the hook because the larger argument to be made, or problem to be solved, here is that scientists shouldn’t assume their responsibilities are restricted to their labs. They ought to be as aware of whoever is funding them as, say, journalists are expected to be if only because the same standards should apply to everyone, or at least to every community that prizes independence and self-regulation. This is necessary beyond considerations of one’s relationship with the rest of society, and towards eliminating the imbalance of power that is sure to erupt between a donor who knows how consequential their wealth can be and the researcher who stands to be manipulated by it. For example, she could be tempted to design future projects in ways that are likelier to attract funding and, of course, ruffle fewer feathers.

(I am aware of the difficulties of working scientists, so I don’t say that the solution – such as it is – is to berate them until they make better choices as much as large-scale reform over many years.)

Notwithstanding (important) questions of financial independence, the use of tainted money for a self-proclaimed ‘good’ would at the least form a moral shield for the corrupt funder to hide behind. However, the extent to which this should concern the scientist is doubtful, especially if she is able to insulate herself and the products of her intellect from the influence a sizeable donation is likely to carry. Another argument could be that we should frame these narratives around those who do ‘good’ instead of obsessing over how they render those who do ‘bad’.

For a tangential example, India’s National Green Tribunal recently slapped Volkswagen with a hefty fine of Rs 500 crore ($71 million) for cheating on emission tests, up from the Rs 171 crore recommended by a special panel. This was because, to quote the tribunal’s principal bench:

… the measure of damages has to be fixed taking into account not only the actual damage but also the magnitude and the capacity of the enterprise so that compensation has deterrent effect. … [The] worth of the company is stated to be $75 billion. Thus, apart from actual damage by a conservative estimate, deterrent element has to be considered, specially in view of international unethical practice.

Let us ignore for a moment that the Supreme Court has stayed this order and assume that Volkswagen deposited Rs 500 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board. We would have considered this a great victory, since Rs 500 crore would have increased India’s environment budget for 2019 by 15%, and expected the board to put the money to good use. Similarly, if rich people commit crimes and are convicted, their punishment could carry a big fine in addition to a prison sentence and commensurate to their personal wealth, to be deposited with an independent body staffed by experts from different fields who decide how that money is spent.

This said, it might also be worth asking if the research project is so important or so urgent that its stewards can’t look beyond the first available source of funds, towards less controversial options. Think of it as a contest between the kind of example we want to set as a society about the foundations of our knowledge systems and if it matters that the funds are directed towards studies that are unlikely to be undertaken through other means. For example, on July 11, Peter Aldhous reported for BuzzFeed that between 2012 and 2014, Epstein donated to projects on melanoma, Crohn’s disease, consciousness research and one to develop open source software for AI. Is it possible to appreciate these contributions while condemning the enormity of Epstein’s crimes at the same time?

It might be useful to draw a line here between the likes of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the one hand and, say, community colleges on the other. The former already boast of multiple donors and don’t stand to lose much by forgoing $250,000. However, the latter don’t have nearly enough and even $50,000 to a single institution could make a big difference. It would be a tragedy if there are no alternatives to Epstein’s money, but when there are, it becomes harder to justify the need for it. It is also not lost on any of us that ties between professors at these privileged universities and Epstein run even deeper, to the extent that they fly on his private jet to attend TED talks and then defend him in public using “empirical evidence” shorn of all social context.

All of these questions disappear if government sources pay more for R&D; put another way, such are the questions that raise their heads when private sources of funding overshadow public ones. However, the early 21st century has been characterised by, among other things, an increasingly pervasive mistrust of experts, if not expertise. Leaders of large nations like India, Brazil, the US, the UK, the Philippines and Australia have consistently placed business interests above safeguarding their natural resources, flying in the face of scientific consensus and protest. Public investment in higher education, healthcare and R&D has stagnated or has fallen in the last few years, increasing researchers’ reliance on the private sector. (In India, the government has on occasion expressed interest to the point of dictating which questions researchers should and shouldn’t pursue.) At this time, what is the right thing for a scientist to do?

The answer isn’t necessarily a blanket policy that says ‘accept the money’ or ‘don’t accept the money’. Instead, what is okay and what is not has to be negotiated by those who receive it, with knowledge of their specific circumstances, the relative importance of their work, what they think the consequences could be, and inevitably informed by their personal moral compasses. So the first thing scientists ought to do is step out of the neatly organised lab and into the messy real world, and not leave their public image to be mediated by a university press office with potentially divergent priorities. To paraphrase Church, there is no excuse for not being abreast of the news.