As long as you rely on billionaires for funding, you are participating in a criminal enterprise

The take-home message of this article is that scientists who took money from Jeffrey Epstein should give it back, and I kinda sorta agree…but first I have to mention this annoyance.

Giving away the money would begin to clean up the gross, topologically complex web of influence trading that Epstein helped weave. Before and after his year in prison, in 2008, Epstein lavished money and attention on scientists—biologist Stephen Jay Gould, biochemist George Church, evolutionary scientist Martin Nowak, linguist Steven Pinker, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, physicist Stephen Hawking, and AI researcher Marvin Minsky, among many others.

Why is Stephen Jay Gould in there? He was dead in 2008! He died 6 years before that, as a matter of fact. There is no sign that he accepted buckets of cash from Epstein, unlike Nowak, who received $6.5 million (which Harvard refuses to return). Gould was both a SJW before the term was invented, and so deathly sick with cancer that the idea he might have participated in Epstein’s sleaze is ludicrous.

But back to the topic at hand — returning or reinvesting the money in socially aware programs is a band-aid. Yes, if you were a scientist who turned a blind eye to the creepy guy who was giving you all that money, you should be punished appropriately, and taking away your ill-gotten gains seems like an entirely reasonable and fair response. If somebody just hands you a million dollars, would you just pocket it without asking where it came from or what was expected in return? If an authority comes along later and takes away that free pile of money you accepted, no questions asked, you’ve got no grounds to complain…especially not when they tell you what you should have inquired about in the first place, that it was given to you by a criminal.

It’s only a start, though. The system is broken. When we’re dependent on the generosity of billionaires to get any science done, that skews the outcome — your funding is no longer coupled to any measure of merit, but on your skill at schmoozing and pandering to fat cats, and on your association with over-hyped organizations like Harvard. Taking money away from scientists does not fix the system. What we need to do is take that power away from the billionaires, and nothing in this solution is going to discomfit the unearned prestige and influence of the criminally wealthy.

Look around your university. See all those fancy buildings named after well-off alumni? That’s the problem, that we rely on the whims of assholes who inherited or stumbled into or stole great wealth, and they use science as Epstein did, as a cosmetic to cover up their crimes and make themselves look better than they are.


  1. says

    Well, yabbut this is an anomalous situation. Vanishingly little science is funded by billionaires just handing out cash. Most billionaires who want to fund science set up foundations that have legitimate review processes. I mean, the despicable nature of Howard Hughes doesn’t really rub off on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. And giving a gazillion dollars to have a building named after you doesn’t corrupt the science that happens inside. Sometimes endowed chairs or programs come with strings attached — Duke is notorious for allowing this — but mostly they don’t. As long as there are billionaires, I think we’re better off if they practice philanthropy, so long as they do it right.

    But yes, if J. Epstein had walked up to me and offered me big bucks, I would like to think I would not have taken it.

  2. says

    I graduated for the College of Law at Ohio State University. That is now the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. Any care to guess how that name change came about? Nice new buildings though.

  3. says

    A short while back Stephen Colbert made a similar point when some billionaire who was giving a talk at a college graduation paid off all their student loans. “That’s nice. Now what about the shlubs who foolishly graduated last year? Or the kids who started school a year later than the class of 2019?”

    A moral society doesn’t depend on baksheesh, or the whims of obscenely wealthy assholes, to provide justice. Or to do science.

    It also makes me wonder about my grocery store, where I’m always asked, “Your total is $9.99. Would you like to round that up to $10 to give a penny to our favorite charity?” Why is the grocery store using donations from customers to fund its charity drive? I suspect tax shenanigans or the like, but I’m a suspicious bastard.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Why is Stephen Jay Gould in there? He was dead in 2008! He died 6 years before that, as a matter of fact.

    Well, it did say “before and after.” Six years before is definitely before.

  5. says

    I don’t get it – the guy is dead. He was human garbage. Who are you giving the money back to?
    Climb down off your high horse. At least the money went to some good.

  6. Owlmirror says

    I wondered why a connection between Stephen Jay Gould & Epstein keeps coming up.

    Here’s an interview with Alan Dershowitz:

    On his personal relationship with Epstein

    Dershowitz: Well, I was friends in the way that Larry Summers, the president of Harvard was friends, in the way that David Gergen, and the way that Stephen Jay Gould – we all knew him academically. He had an office at Harvard University in Brattle Square. And he would conduct seminars, and we would all attend his seminars. None of us had any inkling that he was involved in anything improper.

    So . . . Epstein was in Harvard, and Gould worked at Harvard before he died. And Gould attended seminars hosted by Epstein? I guess?

    And the NYTimes article article still says that “Mr. Epstein attracted a glittering array of prominent scientists”, and includes Gould’s name.

    I think any rich poseur could send invitations for a dinner and talk session to a bunch of scientists, and then anyone could claim that the rich poseur “attracted” them.

  7. Owlmirror says

    The NYTimes article I linked to has a correction:

    An earlier version of this article misstated when the prominent scientists Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Murray Gell-Mann, Oliver Sacks and Frank Wilczek attended gatherings hosted by Jeffrey E. Epstein. The events they attended occurred before Mr. Epstein’s 2008 conviction, not after it.

    And presumably in Gould’s case, before his death as well.

  8. consciousness razor says

    And presumably in Gould’s case, before his death as well.

    Obviously. This Mother Jones article/interview is relying on Stuart Pivar. He’s presumably an independent source, in addition to Alan Dershowitz. I guess the list probably includes lots of Big Harvard Names™, but for whatever reason, Gould (and Pinker, Summers, etc.) is one who stood out.
    Attending his jerkoff parties isn’t the same as accepting “buckets of cash.” But if we’re going to have goalposts, then we should shift them somewhere.

  9. Owlmirror says

    Searching for the Gould-Epstein connection brought up some gossip from Feb. 14, 2000 (Robert Wright stalks and trolls SJG)

    Robert Wright:
    “Savvy alpha male that Gould is, he refrained from getting into a gutter brawl with a scrawny, marginal primate such as myself.” […] “Gould’s long-repressed contempt burst forth from the reptilian core of his brain and leapt over the fire walls in his frontal lobes.”

    What was Wright referring to? Well, SJG commented on his book.

    Eight pages into a Natural History column on Martin Luther, in a half-sentence parenthetical, Gould called The Moral Animal “the most noted and most absurd example” of evolutionary psychology.

  10. PaulBC says

    I will add that I have depended on billionaires for most of my livelihood, whether they were the CEO of my employer or VCs funding it. So I’d be broke if I refused to accept money from billionaires. I suspect most of us would. I would like to think I’d turn down money offered directly from Epstein or the Koch brothers, but it’s never come up.

  11. Jackson says

    For the people who would refuse millions of dollars for their favorite charity, is there an implied (if there are any strings attached)?

    I think I would take the money if Epstein or the Kochs offered a million dollars to feed food insecure kids in my city with no strings attached.

  12. stemcellguy says

    PZ, I love the site and I think you’re a really smart guy, but this is a really dumb idea. I’ve never had money in my lab from sleazy billionaires but I have had lots of grants and donations from a wide variety of people. This money is used to pay the salaries of people in the lab and to conduct research. When the research is done, the money is spent. Where would the funds come from to “give it back?” Not from my lab, as I have no funds for something like that. And robbing other funds would be illegal and would hurt people in the lab now. From the endowment of my university? Why – so that the whole university is published because one laboratory had money from a bad person? And as for the idea that I personally benefit from donations? Well, maybe some people do that. In my lab, all the money gets spent on research. I may use some, on rare occasions, to send a student to a meeting but will generally try to fund that from another source.

    Take no money from known sleaze bags = great idea. I’m totally on board.

    A simplistic solution to this problem that requires destruction of the careers of people in your lab, in contrast, is poorly thought out, unworkable and not up to your usual clear minded standards.

  13. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The problem here, ultimately, is that we have billionaires at all–people so wealthy that they feel as if they can write–and change at will–their own rules. That is the very definition of privilege. Nobody, ever, anywhere needs a billion dollars. We need to tax the living shit out of these assholes…either that, or we need to come up with a scheme that rewards people who are smarter and more decent.

    If we are going to depend on rich people for funding, we need a better class of rich people.

  14. says

    as Vespasian said “pecunia non olet”
    If scientists spent the money for good research, I don’t care where the money came from (better to spend it on research than on yacht or alt-right politician) but I definitely would have looked on what was expected in return

  15. PaulBC says

    Gorzki@17 Good phrase to keep handy. I never heard it before. My view is that it all stinks. But you have to live somehow.

    I used to hand-wring back in grad school thinking about my advisor’s DARPA grants (though seriously nothing I did had the slightest military application). At least, that’s not an issue, but clearly just living like a normal American means that you benefit from centuries of violence and oppression. I’d still like to think I could draw the line somewhere. Anyone who is getting flights on private jets or attending meetings in lavish surroundings should start to wonder where that money is coming from. I think the corruption really comes in strong when you begin to believe you deserve it all, and that is apparently not uncommon at all.

  16. DanDare says

    Interesting the different takes.
    Was it a gift or a bribe? Gifts can come from anyone, even assholes.
    OTOH gifts can look like bribes and tarnish reputations. That’s done on purpose sometimes.
    OTOH in a guerilla war you take the enemies resources when you can to help your side.
    Never look a gift horse in the mouth is an old saying. What is it about? How does it relate to caveat emptor?
    In the cases where money was dolled out do we know if strings were attached? What was the money used for? A way of avoiding taint on donations is through a receiving service that passes the money on with no disclosure about the source.
    As to the more substantive problem the government should heavilly tax billionaires and fund universities at a higher level. Universities also should be regulated to ensure the administration are not drawing excessive funds to their iwn pockets.

  17. isochron says

    The money doesn’t know where it came from — Deep Cover (1992)…unless it was New Jack City.

    If you are thinking of applying for money from a source you know to be dubious then don’t. If you already have it, having received it without knowing about the quality of the source, spend it wisely and do some good with it.