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.