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.

The INO story

The INO’s is a great story but stands unfortunately to become a depressing parable at the moment – the biggest bug yet in a spider’s web spun of bureaucracy and misinformation.

A longer story about the India-based Neutrino Observatory that I’d been wanting to do since 2012 was finally published today (to be clear, I hit the ‘Publish’ button today) on The Wire. Apart from myself, four people worked on it: two amazing reporters, one crazy copy-editor and one illustrator. I don’t mean to diminish the role of the illustrator, especially in setting the piece’s mood quite well, but only that the reporters and the copy-editor did a stupendous job of getting the story from 0 to 1. After all, all I’d had was an idea.

The INO’s is a great story but stands unfortunately to become a depressing parable at the moment – the biggest bug yet in a spider’s web spun of bureaucracy and misinformation. As told on The Wire, the INO is India’s most badass science experiment yet but its inherent sophistication has become its strength and weakness: a strength for being able yield cutting-edge scientific, a weakness for being the ideal target of stubborn activism, unreason and, consequently and understandably, fatigue on the part of the physicists.

Here on out, it doesn’t look like the INO will get built by 2020, and it doesn’t look like it will be the same thing it started out as when it does get built. Am I disappointed by that? Of course – and bad question. I’m rooting for the experiment, yes? I’m not sure – and much better question. In the last few years, in which the project’s plans gained momentum, some unreasonable activists were able to cash in on the Department of Atomic Energy’s generally cold-blooded way of dealing with disagreement (the DAE is funding the INO). At the same time, the INO collaboration wasn’t as diligent as it ought to have been with the environmental impact assessment report (getting it compiled by a non-accredited agency). Finally, the DAE itself just stood back and watched as the scientists and activists battled it out.

Who lost? Take a guess. I hope the next Big Science experiment fares better (I’m probably not referring to LIGO because it has a far stronger global/American impetus while the INO is completely indigenously motivated).

Curious Bends – a rabid burden, two caverns of oil, the death of universal marriage and more

1. Over 35% of the world’s rabies burden is borne by India

“A global report on rabies has found India accounts for more than one-third of all deaths due to dog bite worldwide. Worse, the report says, most victims die at home because hospitalization provides little palliative care and death is inevitable. … According to one study, only 70% of the people in India have ever heard of rabies, only 30% know to wash the wounds after animal bites and, of those who get bitten, only 60% receive a modern cell-culture-derived vaccine.” (3 min read, timesofindia.com)

2. Pollution is ruining many iconic monuments in India, not just the Taj Mahal

“In Delhi, the white-marbled Lotus Temple, an architectural triumph and pride of the Bahai faith, is wilting under the onslaught of pollution. The temple was built in 1986 and attracts 400,000 visitors every month. But the pristine marble has been fading, despite regular maintenance. So badly, in fact, that the entire temple may look grey in a matter of years, according to the National Green Tribunal, an arm of the Indian parliament that focuses on environmental issues.” (4 min read, qz.com)

3. A new solar installation will produce electricity for cheaper than coal or natural gas – a first

“In January 2015, Saudi Arabian company ACWA Power surprised industry analysts when it won a bid to build a 200-megawatt solar power plant in Dubai that will be able to produce electricity for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. The price was less than the cost of electricity from natural gas or coal power plants, a first for a solar installation. Electricity from new natural gas and coal plants would cost an estimated 6.4 cents and 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, respectively, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.” (9 min read, ensia.com)

4. Thanks to a slump in oil prices, India is filling two caverns with $800 million’s worth of it

“Taking advantage of weak global crude prices, down about 42.5% since July 2014, the government is spending about Rs 4,948 crore to shore up what are called strategic oil reserves, which can be used in emergencies, if crude imports are disrupted. Apart from the natural caverns, concrete tanks are being built at Vishakhapatnam port. Both underground facilities can together hold 1.33 metric tonnes of crude—the equivalent of 1,29,221 truck-tanker loads.” (4 min read, indiaspend.com)

5. Why you can ignore India’s dark monsoon forecast

“While the IMD allows for a wide margin of error of 5% above or below its April predictions, it still rarely gets it right. Even within that 10 percentage point margin of error, its early prediction has been right in only six of the last 21 years.” Simultaneously, “Economists say even if India is hit by another weak monsoon, it is unlikely the country’s grain output will take a huge hit. India’s biggest grain-producing states are more productive than ever and don’t depend on the monsoon anymore.” (3 min read, wsj.com)

Chart of the Week

“The roots of the current [marriage] squeeze go back a generation. Sex-selective abortions became common in China in the 1990s as a result of the country’s strict (now somewhat laxer) one-child-per-couple policy and a traditional preference for sons. A few years later they became increasingly common in India, also because of a preference for sons and helped by the growing availability of prenatal tests to determine sex. In 2010-15, according to the UN Population Division, China’s sex ratio at birth was 116 boys to 100 girls; in India the figure was 111. Though these ratios have fallen a little since their peaks, they are still far above the natural rate, which is 105 to 100. As a result, enormous numbers of girls and women are “missing”—absent, that is, compared with what would have happened if there had not been sex selection.” (11 min read, economist.com)