Maybe we need to think more deeply about the ethics of science funding

Most of the scientists I know, including myself, live in a world of scientific poverty, constantly struggling to scrape together the funds needed to do their work. Some of us, again like me, consciously select research topics that are doable on a tiny budget; others lock themselves into their offices and write grant proposal after grant proposal, watching most of them get rejected, and hoping that one or two get funded so they can pay their students to do the science while they lock themselves back into the office to start writing again in preparation for the next grant cycle. That’s the real life of your typical scientist.

Except for some who manage to get noticed enough to attract celebrity money. There are millionaires who look to gain a little prestige and a reputation as a patron of the sciences by splashing money at high profile research projects. There is no glory to be earned by tossing $10,000 to an obscure spider biologist at a small liberal arts college, even though that’s a sum that would have him reeling deliriously with joy and fund some major upgrades to his lab. That’s not something you could brag about to your millionaire friends! On the other hand, being able to say “I gave a million dollars to an already incredibly well funded lab at Harvard” is going to earn you admiring glances and plenty of back-slaps from your cronies.

Hmm. Somebody ought to do the experiment of handing some massive money, like a million dollars, to some weird little biologist in Minnesota, just to see what kind bragging rights they’d get. No, don’t; I wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of money, I’d probably just hand it over to administrators to turn into teaching projects, and no one brags about enhancing teaching. I also kind of like the small science I do, and don’t want to end up obligated to some smug investment banker.

You know, like Jeffrey Epstein. Suddenly, a lot of big money scientists at high-toned institutions are finding themselves scrambling to back away from the cash they received.

Epstein called himself a “science philanthropist”, and donated handsomely to prestigious organizations such as Harvard, MIT, and the Santa Fe Institute. At one point, he was allegedly giving as much as $20m a year to fund scientists. Some institutions and researchers continued to take Epstein’s money even after his 2008 conviction, like MIT, according to BuzzFeed News.

Epstein called himself a ‘science philanthropist’ and donated handsomely to prestigious organizations
Joi Ito, the head of MIT’s world-famous Media Lab issued an apology last week for having accepted donations for the Media Lab and his own tech startups. In his open letter on the MIT Media Lab’s website, he said: “I take full responsibility for my error in judgment. I am deeply sorry to the survivors, to the Media Lab, and to the MIT community for bringing such a person into our network.

You can read Ito’s odd little apology — it’s strangely evasive. He disavows any knowledge of Epstein’s actions, despite receiving money after he was convicted. Hey, somebody gives him money, he’s not going to question where it came from. He doesn’t say how much money it was, either, although he promises to raise an equal amount from other donors and donate it to non-profits that defend survivors of sex trafficking. So…he’d be a middle man, taking donations to the MIT Media Lab and redirecting them to a completely unrelated charity? Is that ethical?

And wait — who is he taking money from? Ito is stumbling all over himself in embarrassment over having taken money from a slimy multi-millionaire, but isn’t he just setting himself up to take more money from more millionaires? I don’t think we can assume subsequent donors will be non-slimy. They’re millionaires, by definition they’re contemptible parasites who have exploited others to obtain their excessive wealth. He wants to find donors who stole their money by means forgivable by capitalists and who haven’t tainted their cash by raping children. Cash smeared with the blood of exploited workers, or by manipulation of capital, why, that’s OK.

Now I’m wondering, though, why we tolerate science philanthropy at all. Was Jeffrey Epstein a competent judge of the quality of science being done to make those who received his largesse proud of the donation? All you’d be able to say is that you superficially impressed a fool with a bucket of loot into giving you some. You haven’t earned the grant, you’ve just been handed money for being a great glad-hander and schmoozer, not for the science. Your donor is going to use your acceptance and your friendliness at parties to inflate their ego some more.

I’m not going to pretend that grant review at our funding institutions is perfect, but I’d be far more impressed with a donor who recognized their limitations and and handed their $20 million to the NSF, and asked them to distribute it to the most qualified research applications. I’d also be more impressed with scientists who won awards by the assessment of their peers than their ability to chat up bankers at cocktail parties.

But then, I’ve just admitted to being a guy who does small science on a shoestring, so nobody cares what I think. Maybe if I could woo some wealthy financiers with irrelevant stories, then my opinion might matter.


  1. numerobis says

    Something I recall about US academia is you can’t get a small grant. In Canada it’s hard to get a large grant, but up to $25k is pretty straightforward.

  2. garnetstar says

    That’s very true, PZ. Most academics are conditioned to take money from any source at all. And, their institutions are as well.

    But, there’s no peer review at all in such donations. One good thing about agency funding is that the reviewers consider not only the quality of the proposed research, but whether there’s a good likelihood of the research getting done. They also consider the professor’s other funding, and how many other research projects they’re running.

    And, of course, with agencies, you don’t run into the problems of possibly being beholden to criminals or owing something to private donors. It’s like patronage: both the scientist and the institution now have to do something for the donor, which can get very sticky.

    I like the idea of all private donations having to go through an agency or other competitive selection process. When I used to get grants from industry, they also instituted a competetive process, not just private donations.

  3. says

    That’s a tricky bit though innit?
    Take bad money to do good work? That’s money not being used for bad + the good work, to boot.

    Should under funded good programs (science, food pantries, shelters, etc.) turn away money because the source is tainted?

  4. wzrd1 says

    @3, my thoughts exactly.
    That good can come out of a bad person’s donation seems irrelevant to some, wanting to sit on their high horse, ignoring very real progress and benefit to humanity as a whole.
    Or, perhaps the legend of Robin Hood was wrong, he should have stolen from the rich and tossed the money into the ocean.

  5. Marshall says

    I see no moral dilemma in accepting money from an evil source as long as you state outright that you think they are evil and that, by using their money, you are not furthering their cause in any way and do not support them or their actions. Granted, an evil source would disavow you and never continue to give you money, but in Jeffrey Epstein’s case he no longer has that capability. If I ran a science lab right now and someone said “hey, Jeffrey Epstein was interested in your research and wanted to donate $10 million to your lab. You can take it now or not.” I would take it–I’m not obligated to Epstein in any way and using his money doesn’t further his nefarious causes as long as I don’t pretend that he wasn’t evil.

  6. PaulBC says


    It also buys them undeserved credibility and goodwill that can amplify their harm. I think you have to see cost/benefit on a case by case basis.

  7. PaulBC says

    There is no glory to be earned by tossing $10,000 to an obscure spider biologist at a small liberal arts college, even though that’s a sum that would have him reeling deliriously with joy and fund some major upgrades to his lab.

    Hint… hint… (I assume) My wife would certainly strike it out of the budget, but you might have more luck with a gofundme. $100 each from 100 fans and maybe a glossy spider album for the trouble.

  8. says

    When people donate to the Red Cross or other aid agencies, they can specify that they would like the money spent on specific, current disasters, but that doesn’t guarantee that it will. Donations are a general pool, distributed by the RC as they see fit.

    The same should be done with science funding. Allow big donors the ego of saying “I gave $50 million!” but let the National Science Foundation or other independent body decide who gets grants from a general pool. Have a committee (completely independent of donors) meet and review applications so there’s no bias.

  9. chris61 says

    @8 Intransitive

    I think you’d lose your big donors that way. People give so they can direct their giving to specific projects that they want to support. Personally I see no reason why they shouldn’t. On a much smaller scale I do the same thing every time I make a charitable contribution. There are charities I want to fund and charities I have no interest in. If I was required to make my charitable contribution to a big pot whose overseers then decided how my contribution would be distributed – well, it wouldn’t happen.

  10. khms says

    #9 @chris61

    If I was required to make my charitable contribution to a big pot whose overseers then decided how my contribution would be distributed – well, it wouldn’t happen.

    And yet, that’s almost the only way I donate – I see it as a feature.

  11. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Interesting, I’m wondering whether the issue might be an over-inflated sense of your ability to judge the desirability of the charity’s goals and its ability to achieve them (Dunning-Kruger) or that you just don’t give a rat’s ass about whether your money is spent effectively.

    Expertise matters. A Xtian missionary might have a compelling narrative, but be utterly incompetent to treat her charges (as happened recently in Uganda). There is also the question of the type of people our society rewards with great wealth–that is, mainly, assholes. Do we reality want charities to reflect their priorities rather than those who are experienced in areas traditionally requiring charitable support (e.g. education, poverty, international development, environmental remediation…)?

  12. PaulBC says


    Above is also why I prefer being taxed to support well-conceived social spending to relying on charitable donation to fill the gap. I’m not going to suggest the government always gets it right (though it could in principle do a much better job if people weren’t going out of their way to undermine its effectiveness). I still would rather be saved the trouble of figuring out how what I perceive as surplus income can serve the common good. I really don’t care if people praise my “charity”. I would in the abstract like to make things better for everyone.

  13. chris61 says

    @12 a_ray_in_dilbert_space
    I can judge the desirability of a charity’s goals to me. For its ability to effectively achieve them I rely on charity navigator and sites like it. I’m just saying that people will always make choices in what they want to support. I’d rather see a rich dude (asshole or not) support something like the eradication of malaria than buy a fleet of yachts.

    @13 PaulBC
    I, too, would in the abstract like to see things made better for everyone but know perfectly well that my small contributions ain’t going to do that, I’d like to think that I can help make things better for a few people.

  14. consciousness razor says

    I’m just saying that people will always make choices in what they want to support.

    I don’t think anyone is disputing that individuals will have such preferences.
    What if I don’t want to support my city’s water system, because I’d rather drink imported beers every day? I still need to pay taxes for that, no? So why isn’t the choice left to me personally, to decide whether or not I’ll support it?
    (Yeah, that was rhetorical. It’s because living in glibertarian fantasyland would be a disaster.)

    I’d rather see a rich dude (asshole or not) support something like the eradication of malaria than buy a fleet of yachts.

    But those obviously aren’t the only two choices, so it’s not really one “rather than” the other.
    You can imagine having plenty of current resources/research/etc. devoted to fighting malaria (or whatever it may be), then deciding to spend the rich asshole’s money on something else that would also be good, possibly for some other people in need … even if the rich asshole doesn’t want those people to benefit in that way, or even if the asshole wants to be the one in control of it all, because they’re rich and entitled and assholish like that.
    I mean, if one were to ask “why was supporting X a good idea?” then it’s not like “because I’m rich and that’s what I want” would be a good answer.

  15. chris61 says

    @15 consciousness razor
    Well someone’s going to decide how to spend the rich assholes (and everybody else’s) after-tax dollars. I’d rather let the RAs decide how to spend theirs, thereby leaving me to decide how to spend mine, than have some authority decide for them (and me) because who’s going to decide who that authority going to be?